Cannabis possession or cultivation are currently crimes, which means that a criminal record is a common result from being arrested for a cannabis offence. Our justice system, however, is supposed to operate on the principle that “the punishment fits the crime”. This article will argue that getting a criminal record for anything to do with cannabis is grossly disproportionate, considering the severity of the crime.
Having a criminal record makes a person’s life a lot harder. Many employers will filter out applicants with criminal records before they even seriously consider them. This is true of almost every job that requires any real responsibility. This means that a future of poverty, or at least severely limited economic opportunities, is a common consequence of getting a criminal conviction.
Of course, having a criminal record is supposed to make people’s lives harder. A criminal is a person who has declared that they are unable or unwilling to abide by the rules of decent society, and it’s fair that they’re marked as such for the safety of other people. We’re not allowed to chop people’s hands off anymore, so there’s no other way to clearly mark a person as a member of the criminal class other than to give them a record.
The problem is that cannabis use isn’t a crime like a real crime is. Real crimes have victims. It’s fair that a criminal record marks a person who has acted with gross disregard or malice towards life and towards suffering. But a person who grew some medicinal cannabis plants has not shown any callousness or ill will. If anything, they should be rewarded for taking actions to alleviate suffering in the face of discouragement from the law.
Becoming unemployable because of a criminal record is one thing if you are a murderer, rapist or fraudster. In cases like these, it’s probably fair for the vast majority of employers to rule such people out from the beginning. But a person who used cannabis, even if they grew it, has not done anything to warrant being placed in the same class as those who have callously brought harm to others.
In any case, that’s not where the punishment ends. Most fair people can agree that it’s unnecessarily brutal for a person with a cannabis conviction to have trouble finding work for the rest of their lives, but it’s also extremely hard to travel with a criminal conviction. Many countries – Canada and America among the most notorious – regularly refuse to let people in if they have a criminal record, reasoning that they have failed to demonstrate sufficient good character.
These two punishments tie in with each other. Many jobs nowadays involve international travel, and this pattern looks set to continue as the world continues to globalise and integrate. This means that, in order to be able to perform an increasing number of jobs, one needs to be free to travel internationally. A person with a criminal conviction preventing them from travel is effectively disqualified from all of these jobs.
Forty years ago, when the War on Drugs was just ramping up, the sort of person who got a cannabis conviction probably wasn’t likely to travel overseas anyway. But in 2019, being restricted from overseas travel for life is a heavy punishment indeed.
It’s worth noting here that a criminal record also affects the wider family. An adult whose employment and travel opportunities are restricted will have trouble providing not only for themselves, but also for their families. So the children of people who grow up with cannabis convictions are also punished.
All of this constitutes obscene cruelty, especially when it is considered that cannabis is a medicine, and that most people who grow it do so to alleviate suffering.
It was once – falsely – believed that cannabis caused a lot of harm. When it was thought that cannabis was a dangerously addictive drug that destroyed peoples minds, then giving someone a criminal record for cannabis may have made some vague kind of sense. Now that we know that cannabis prohibition was built on false premises, it is apparent that giving someone a criminal record for dealing with it is unfair.
In this case, the correct thing to do is to formalise this state of affairs, and as soon as possible, by repealing cannabis prohibition. We can no longer, in good faith, argue that giving someone a criminal conviction is a punishment that fits the suffering caused by the supposed crime.
This article is an excerpt from The Case For Cannabis Law Reform, compiled by Vince McLeod and due for release by VJM Publishing in the summer of 2018/19.