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The History Of Cannabis In Canada

Cannabis has an interesting history in Canada, even if it is somewhat brief compared to many other parts of the world. The plant is believed to have evolved in China at around 12,000 BC. Between then and now, cannabis has traveled all the way around the globe. However, it didn’t arrive in Canada until 1606, when French botanist Louis Hebert planted hemp in what is now Nova Scotia. In 1801, free hemp seed was distributed to Canadian farmers on behalf of the King of England. At that time, hemp was the only form of cannabis that grew in Canada – marijuana wouldn’t come along until later. 

Marijuana’s Introduction And Criminalization

In 1908, Canada passed the Opium Act, beginning the country’s era of drug prohibition. During the late 1910s through the 1920s, a different type of cannabis – marijuana – made its way north, from Mexico, through the United States, and finally to Canada. Until that point, cannabis had only been used for food, for fiber, and for other industrial purposes. After marijuana was introduced, it still took quite a while for recreational use to catch on. 

In 1923, Canada passed the Narcotics Drug Act Amendment Bill, which outlawed three more drugs in addition to opium. One of these drugs was cannabis. Historians often credit Emily Murphy’s 1922 book The Black Candle as the inspiration for this decision. Murphy’s anti-drug, often anti-immigrant writings were widely read in Canada, and many believe that she played a significant part in spreading the drug panic throughout Canada’s laymen and legislators alike. One historian – Catharine Carstairs – disputes this idea. According to Carstairs, “There were insinuations in the records that the bureaucrats at the Division of Narcotic Control did not think very highly of Emily Murphy and did not pay attention to what she was writing about, and they didn’t consider her a particularly accurate or valuable source.” 

In any case, the 1923 Narcotics Drug Act Amendment Bill made cannabis illegal. Those caught in violation of the law could face up to seven years in prison, and those caught trafficking the drug could be deported.

Interestingly, this law was passed at a time when very few, if any, Canadians were using cannabis recreationally. The first seizure of cannabis by Canadian polices wasn’t until 1937, fourteen years after the law was passed. In 1938, new laws were passed that made industrial hemp illegal, too, but rates of cannabis use remained low. Between 1941 and 1961, cannabis accounted for only 2% of all Canada’s drug arrests.

A Rise In Popularity

During the 1960s, cannabis use began to spread rapidly. From 1930-1946, the RCMP only made 25 cannabis-related arrests. That number increased to 2,300 in 1968, and 12,000 in 1972. The largest demographic of cannabis users at that point was middle class college students, and arresting large numbers of otherwise law-abiding citizens for cannabis possession did not seem like a wise or necessary course of action. In 1969, the Canadian government formed the Royal Commission of Inquiry in the Non-Medical Use of Drugs, in order to investigate the recreational use of cannabis. The commission (more commonly known as the Le Dain Commission) released a report in 1972 that recommended the decriminalization – not legalization – of cannabis. However, this recommendation was ignored.

Despite the illegal status of cannabis, and despite a new Narcotics Control Act in 1961 that raised the maximum penalties, many Canadians chose to continue to partake. In 1971, the first pro-cannabis smoke-in protest took place in the Gastown district of Vancouver. Hundreds of peaceful protesters demonstrated until they were chased off by police. This event became known as the Gastown Riot

Gallup polls in the 80s showed that cannabis use seemed to be stabilizing, but rates of use rose dramatically in the 90s. One set of statistics from Ontario shows that use of cannabis among the 18-29 age group increased from 18% to 28% between 1996 to 2000 – just four years.

Medical Marijuana And Court Battles

In 1996, a man named Terrance Parker was arrested for possession, cultivation, and trafficking of cannabis after he was caught cultivating cannabis in order to treat his epilepsy. He appealed to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and a judge determined that it would be unconstitutional to forbid Parker (and others with similar needs) from using cannabis as a medicine. 

Canada legalized medical marijuana in 2001 with the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations. Following this decision, there was a series of court cases that confirmed Canadians’ rights to use marijuana for medical purposes, but failed to advance the legalization or decriminalization of the drug. However, medical exemptions to the marijuana prohibition remained rare: while hundreds of thousands of Canadians self-medicate with cannabis, only ~3,000 medical exemptions have been granted, and legally-grown cannabis remained difficult to find.

Attempts To Decriminalize Recreational Use

In 2003, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s administration introduced a bill that would have decriminalized the possession of up to 15 grams of cannabis. The only penalty for possessing that amount would have been a small fine, and personal cultivation of up to seven plants would have been nothing more than a summary offense. Unfortunately, the bill died, largely because of a threat by the United States’ Drug Enforcement Administration to slow down border crossings between US and Canada, and to increase the frequency of vehicle searches for cannabis.

In 2004, Paul Martin’s administration introduced an identical bill, but it was thrown out after Martin’s administration lost a confidence vote. The Conservative party won in the 2006 election, and the government did not pursue the issue further.

Legalization

After Justin Trudeau was elected Prime Minister in 2015, he established the Task Force on Marijuana Legalization and Regulation in order to discuss a process for legalization. In December 2016, the task force released a 106-page report, which was (and still is) accessible to the public. The report laid out processes and considerations for legalization, and was taken into account when the government composed the final legislation. 

Bill C-45, better known as the Cannabis Act, was passed in June 2018, and cannabis officially became legal on October 17 of the same year. This made Canada the second nation in modern times to legalize cannabis, with Uruguay being the first.


Legalization still isn’t complete. Currently, cannabis can be grown and sold only by licensed producers and retailers. Laws regarding the production and sale of concentrates and edibles will be passed within a year of the Cannabis Act. Soon, a new bill will be passed that allows anyone convicted of simple cannabis possession prior to October 17, 2018, to apply for a pardon – which will be a free, expedited process.

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