The history of Canada's prohibition on cannabis

The History of Canada’s Prohibition on Cannabis

On October of 2018, the government of Canada decided to finally legalize cannabis nationwide and cannabis consumers across the country have been celebrating ever since.


While this is an important milestone in acceptance and removing the century-long stigmas associated with cannabis use, it’s important to understand the circumstances that led to nearly 100 years of cannabis prohibition.


In the early 1900’s, cannabis usage was actually considered quite mundane. While public its use was associated generally with ethnic groups, there was a small underground culture of users across a wide range of ethnicities, including Caucasians. In the eyes of the general public it was relatively harmless. Cannabis was a common ingredient in some medicines at the time as well, leading many to view it more as a medicinal compound, than an illicit drug.


This impression took a sharp turn in 1923 with the Narcotics Drug Act Amendment Bill, which included marijuana and two other drugs alongside Opium as equally dangerous substances. This bill was built into the Act to Prohibit the Improper Use of Opium and other Drugs, which eventually evolved into the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act by 1938. This act also made cannabis cultivation illegal, effectively demolishing the hemp industry in Canada.


The sudden and dramatic shift in perspective relating to cannabis is often attributed to a combination of two major contributing factors.


First, came from Emily Murphy’s book The Black Candle released in 1922, which she wrote under the name Janey Canuck. In it, she wrote a chapter dubbed ‘Marihuana – A New Menace’ about the links between drugs and immigrants, particularly those from China, as well as the potential dangers which this drug posed to the safety of white women.


Though her work was not professionally respected due to the creative liberties and personal biases she took in her writing, the book was widely read and contributed heavily to the growing drug panic across North America. It is believed The Black Candle inspired cannabis’ inclusion in Canada’s restricted substances list.


The second came as a side-effect of the timber industry in the 1920’s doing everything in their power to prevent the hemp industry from cutting into their profits. With faster growth cycles, cheaper production and a wide variety of uses above and beyond paper, rope and clothing, cannabis posed a huge risk to the timber industry’s future.


Combined with rabid church groups, who helped fund a number of anti-cannabis propaganda films and ‘research papers’ in the latter-half of the 1930’s, the public was fed a constant barrage of media promoting cannabis as the drug of choice for immoral, Satan-worshiping criminals.


Famously, the 1936 film Reefer Madness (Originally titled Tell Your Children), depicts cannabis as a catalyst which leads to murder, rape, hallucinations and eventual, literal madness. This was only one of numerous propaganda attempts to frame cannabis users as evil.


Since the film’s rediscovery in the 1970’s, it has become a prime example of the type of misleading information the public was being fed, in order to misconstrue the effects of cannabis during its initial defamation.


Because of these attempts to undermine and demonize cannabis, its recreational use waned until the 1960’s when it became the popular drug of choice for middle-class college students. It was because of the increase in popularity, as well as the number of criminal charges being levied against the middle-class, that the government of Canada formed the ‘Le Dain Commission’ in 1969 to investigate the effects of non-medicinal cannabis use.


The report released by the commission in 1972 recommended that the government remove criminal penalties for cannabis possession. This would be the first study of its kind to propose a decriminalization of cannabis, and although it was discussed but ultimately ignored by the following two federal governments, it set the framework for changes over the next few decades.

Studies done in North America through the 1980’s and 1990’s showed that cannabis usage was continuing to rise among teens and young adults, particularly in the 19-28 demographic.


At the same time, additional information began emerging from various European scientific studies, demonstrating the wide range of benefits cannabis grants patients with various medical conditions. From terminal illness to chronic pain to insomnia, it was hard to ignore the positive effects cannabis offered when compared to potentially organ damaging painkillers and sleep-aids.

Studies done in 2016 suggested that about five million Canadians were using cannabis recreationally at least once a month, with numbers expected to jump by around 20% if legalization was allowed.


With these studies, combined with the United States’ early adopting states like Colorado and California, the Canadian government could no longer continue ignoring the financial potential of cannabis. Not just in the sense of taxes appropriated through legal sales, but also by wasting less money arresting, prosecuting and jailing cannabis users.


As well all know, last October the Canadian government finally made the leap and legalized cannabis for recreational use. It was a joyous day for consumers, who celebrated across the country.


Though still in its infancy, the potential for the Canadian cannabis industry is boundless. Cannabis has come a long way over the last couple of years, but where its future lies is still a foggy picture.


With edibles, cannabis beverages and a wide array of CBD-infused products close on the horizon, the potential for growth is seemingly unlimited.  How this will play into our day-to-day lives and affect Canadian culture in the long-term still waits to be seen.