Where there is smoke, there is fire.

Cannabis Prohibition in Canada

written by: Dee Kaur

From being smoked as hashish in the Middle East, being orally consumed as resin oil in China in 2000 B.C, to being openly farmed and consumed across Canada in the 21st century, the Cannabis sativa plant has made a major breakthrough in the history of its consumption. 

The Cannabis Act of 2018 (Bill C-45) gave Canada the honour to be the first G7 nation to federally legalize the regulation of recreational cannabis for personal use, a crucial turning point in Canadian history. 

But for over 80 years, cannabis had been outlawed due to several political, economic and racial forces. How did cannabis, a plant that most Canadians didn’t even know about in the beginning of the 20th century, become so heavily regulated? Let’s hash it out with a brief look into its “criminal” history. 

In the early 1900s, cannabis and narcotics such as opium were perceived as threats to the pre-existing societal order, and it’s got to do with race. 

Immigrants from China, Mexico, India, and the Caribbean began coming to Canada in the late 1800s to the early 1900s, carrying alongside the cultural opennesses towards cannabis consumption. Majority of Canadians were unaware of the plant and its properties until it's criminalization in 1923. So when cannabis entered Canaidan borders, it was met with a racialized fear including towards those that used it. As cannabis was associated with people of colour, it  brought on decades of racial stigma, profiling and drug policies that targeted these ethnic minorities.

Cannabis was vilified in film and media as a killer drug that would lead to societal collapse, civil disobedience, insanity, violence, and other immoral behaviours, especially among the younger crowd. These representations of cannabis can be seen in the book The Black Candle by Emily Murphy (1920), an anti-marijuana film called “Reefer Madness” in 1936, and some films (shown below). Its defamation in film and media helped shape the disapproving beliefs and attitudes held by Canadians towards cannabis. 

In 1923, cannabis became federally criminalized after being registered under the Confidential Restricted List under the Narcotics Drug Act Amendment Bill. 

The first mention of cannabis in international debate was during the Geneva Convention in 1925 (also known as the International Opium Convention) where the U.S. ordered that cannabis be limited to medical and scientific purposes only. 

As of 1925, cannabis became internationally regulated and the War on Cannabis was in effect. It wasn’t until 1937 that the very first four convictions for cannabis possession were made. Between 1946 and 1961, cannabis offences only made up 2% of all drug arrests in Canada. 

The 60s saw a significant shift in cannabis discourse as a new type of cannabis consumer emerged--white, middle-class youth who made up a large part of the hippie psychedelic culture. The Hippie culture rejected conventional society and instead formed one on the basis of freedom, political activism, environmentalism, and feminism. The inspiration? You guessed it. Cannabis. 

In 1961, the Narcotic Control Act placed stricter restrictions on cannabis possession, trafficking, cultivating, importing and exporting. Possession could land an offender 7 years in prison. As a first offence, it was 6 months imprisonment or a $1,000 fine, which is equal to $8,100 today. Subsequent offences were double the fine or one year imprisonment, or both. Anyone in the possession of cannabis for the purposes of trafficking faced a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. 

Despite the harsher regulations, convictions surged from 25 in the 1940s to 12,00 in 1972 as the plant's popularity peaked in the 60s and 70s. 

The white middle-class hippies who consumed cannabis (and their parents) pressured the Canadian government to soften drug laws and then in 1969, the government did. Prosecutors found guilty of possession could be charged with summary conviction which meant prosecutors were more likely to be punished with a fine rather than a jail sentence. 

In the 70s, the Le Dain Commission proposed that cannabis be decriminalized based on its assessment of the plant’s psychological and physical effects. However, expert opinion to soften the penalties for possession of cannabis for personal use was dismissed and the government advanced cannabis policies, like the Controlled Drugs & Substances Act of 1996 . 

Then, in 2003, the Liberals proposed Bill C-38 that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of cannabis, but the American Drug Enforcement Agency rejected it. The Conservatives who held the majority the following year (2004) would then prevent the bill from being re-introduced. 

There you have it!!!

The cannabis plant has been through a whirlwind of misguided, race-based policies that outlawed it for almost a century. The medical cannabis reform had shifted the perception of cannabis from a dangerous drug to a medicine and then to a recreational plant that Canadians can openly enjoy. Although the Canadians government's dismissal towards evidence-based research papers on the positive potentials of cannabis was questionable, education, research and attitude around the plant has lifted much of its stigma. But, there is still room for active reform for attitudes towards recreational consumption and for small cannabis farmers and producers to be included and have more headway into the legal market of cannabis. 


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