History of Cannabis Prohibition in Canada
There is no other plant on the planet that has endured as much condemnation as cannabis. It has grown naturally since ancient times but has had a long history of prohibition around the globe. Though the perception has been swiftly shifting over the last few years, there was a time when a deep misunderstanding of its seemingly endless benefits led cannabis to be lumped into the same category as opium and cocaine.
Before 1923, there were no laws against cannabis in Canada. In fact, most Canadians had never seen or even heard of cannabis because it wasn’t available in the country. At the time, discriminatory rhetoric was at an all-time high with the government haphazardly placing blame on immigrants for bringing opium into the country. That misplaced fear sparked the beginning of drug prohibition. It started with the Opium Act of 1908, which was followed by the Opium and Drug Act of 1911 that also included cocaine and morphine. In 1923, cannabis became illegal under the Narcotics Drug Act Amendment Bill, which introduced the Act to Prohibit the Improper Use of Opium and other Drugs.
Because occurrences of cannabis possession were so low, it was more than a decade later before the first offence was made in 1937. In fact, there were only 25 convictions up until 1946 and, until 1961, cannabis-only accounted for a whopping 2% of the total number of drug-related arrests. But soon after, things began to change.
In the sixties, there was a massive increase in cannabis use among college-aged adults thanks to the popularity of counterculture values. Consequently, the number of cannabis convictions also rose, with 2,300 cases in 1968. Just four years later, the number skyrocketed to 12,000. That same year, the Royal Commission of Inquiry in the Non-Medical Use of Drugs (also known as the Le Dain Commission) released a report that recommended removing criminal penalties (but not legalizing) from cannabis possession and though it was discussed, no official laws or legislation were put into place to decriminalize it.
Cannabis’ popularity continued to increase over the following decades. In 1996, a man named Terrance Parker made headlines after being arrested for cultivating, possessing and trafficking cannabis. He was growing it to help manage his epileptic seizures and was able to appeal to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In 2000, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that cannabis prohibition was unconstitutional and just one year later the government introduced the Marihuana for Medical Access Regulations which allowed qualified patients to use and cultivate cannabis for medical reasons. Licensed cultivators could also grow cannabis under the new law.
The early 2000s saw a slow down in the momentum towards legalizing recreational cannabis. In 2003 and 2004, measures to decriminalize cannabis were introduced but were not successful. In 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper introduced a strict anti-drug policy that promised mandatory prison sentences for cannabis cultivators and sellers. But, five years later, a judge again ruled that prohibition of cannabis was unconstitutional and the government was ordered to fix their policies in 2011 and again in 2016.
Last year, the Cannabis Act (C-45) was introduced and this June it was passed by the Senate, making Canada the second nation in the world to legalize cannabis. When it goes into effect on October 17, it will be completely legal for adults to purchase cannabis, possess up to 30 grams of weed and grow up to four plants in their home.
Unfortunately, within the decades of prohibition, more than 500,000 Canadians lives have been negatively impacted by decades of criminal convictions for non-violent, minor cannabis offences that soon will no longer be a crime, including challenges like renting a home, volunteering, and finding meaningful work.
It’s time to rewrite the wrongs of prohibition. DOJA has partnered with Cannabis Amnesty to create PARDON – a line of clothing and accessories that raise awareness about this injustice to help ensure that no Canadian is burdened with a criminal record for cannabis possession. Click here to sign the petition and purchase PARDON merch, 100 per cent of the proceeds will go to supporting Cannabis Amnesty’s mission of righting history’s wrongs.
By K. Astre
Image by Tamara Robinson
DOJA does not condone or endorse the illegal consumption of cannabis.