A Brief History of Marijuana Prohibition & Legalization in Canada

byAlanaArmstrong6 minutes

The history of cannabis in Canada dates back to 1801 when the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada (now southern Ontario) distributed hemp seeds to farmers to stimulate industry. The provincial parliament also provided the farmers money to purchase hemp-production equipment. The crop was used domestically and exported, mainly for fiber and clothing. Eventually, hemp gave way to cotton, which required less work to process. But the integration of cannabis into Canadian life had only just begun.

Emily Murphy the Mother of Marijuana Prohibition in Canada

Before cannabis consumption could even be considered widespread, it was banned early in the 20th century. Canadians have women's rights activist, jurist and author Emily Murphy to thank for spreading the racist drug panic that captivated the nation for years.

Emily's early works include a series of articles penned for Maclean’s in 1920. According to the book “Crime and Deviance in Canada: Historical Perspectives,” which looks at the history of Canadian crime and criminal justice, Maclean’s ordered the articles specifically "for the express purpose of arousing public demands for stricter drug legislation." The magazine later apologized for the indiscretion, but it was too late. The series became the first draft of Emily’s best-selling book, "The Black Candle," published in 1922.

In chapters titled “Marahuana—A New Menace,” Emily outlines her plots about “aliens of colour” using drugs to “bring about the downfall of the white race.” The popularity of her writings amplified what started as small drug scares in Vancouver to impressionable, mostly Euro-white Canadians.

Cannabis was almost unknown in Canada at the time, making it easy for Emily to claim it was a lethal poison, turning those addicted to it into raving maniacs capable of violence without moral responsibility. After publishing her proclamations as research, Emily nominated herself for a Nobel Prize.

Canada Was the First Western Country to Outlaw Cannabis

Cannabis became illegal in Canada in 1923. The plant joined the previously outlawed nonmedical opium (added in 1908), cocaine and morphine (both added in 1911) on the government’s banned drugs list.

Canada banned cannabis a full 14 years before the U.S. did; this means Canada had nearly a decade and a half more of marijuana seizures and convictions. The first marijuana seizure in Canada occurred in 1937. At first, the number of marijuana-related police cases held at low levels, then grew steadily starting in the 1960s.

Before New Year’s Day of 1946, there were a total of 25 cannabis convictions in Canada. Fast-forward to 1962, and 20 cannabis cases were recorded for that year. But by 1968, Royal Canadian Mounted Police reported 2,300 cases connected to cannabis. In 1972, the tally reached 12,000. Most people attribute this rise in part to college students and the hippie psychedelic counterculture.

How Cannabis Laws Still Affect People Today

Jumping to modern times, in 2006 Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced a new national anti-drug strategy that imposed mandatory prison sentences for cannabis dealers. Additionally, anyone charged with growing more than 500 plants would face a two-year minimum prison sentence. Harper also increased the maximum penalties for producing cannabis from seven to 14 years in jail.

Today, there are more than 500,000 Canadians with minor drug offences on their criminal records. The current Liberal government is considering a program to pardon such crimes after legalization is rolled out some time in 2018.

Canada Warms Up to Medical Marijuana

Canada's first medical marijuana law, the Marihuana for Medical Access Regulations (MMAR), appeared in 2001 to allow some patients to grow cannabis or purchase it from licensed growers.

By 2013, the government implemented the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR), creating a commercial industry for medicinal cannabis—but only for dry marijuana flower. Other forms of marijuana, like oils, were only permitted after the 2015 case of Owen Smith.

Owen made his cannabis-infused baked goods and balms for a cannabis buyers club in Victoria. He was arrested for unlawful marijuana possession and drug trafficking. His case was heard in front of the Supreme Court of Canada, and they agreed that medical marijuana patients’ rights were being violated by not letting them consume cannabis in whatever form they chose.

Today, the government estimates that more than 269,000 Canadians are registered with the MMPR to legally consume medical marijuana.


Recreational Cannabis Takes Roots in the Aughts

The actual roots of recreational marijuana were formed before the 2000s in 1969 when the Canadian government's Royal Commission of Inquiry in the Non-Medical Use of Drugs, or "Le Dain Commission," came together to investigate the nonmedical uses of cannabis. The final of its four reports contained some progressive recommendations regarding the legal aspects of nonmedical drugs. The paper advised:

  • Withdrawing criminal law against nonmedical users of drugs
  • Decriminalizing possession of cannabis
  • Reducing penalties for other cannabis offences
  • Having an emphasis on medical intervention for opiate addictions

But it wasn’t until 2003, when the Jean Chrétien-led Liberals introduced the first federal marijuana decriminalization measure. The bill died partly from pressure from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. An identical decriminalization measure came by way of Paul Martin's 2004 minority Liberal government, but the bill eventually met with defeat, too.

Early to Ban, Early to Bond With a New Cannabis Market

Being the first western country to say no to cannabis, Canada has a lot of making up to do for harsh legal penalties and societal judgement related to the plant. And though popular opinion varies on the matter, 2016 felt like Canada's most significant shift, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that legal recreational cannabis would come to Canada. A government taskforce formed to start exploring how to implement the prime minister’s vision for legal adult-use cannabis.

After the announcement, Canadians took cues from this new liberal viewpoint and unlicensed cannabis shops popped up all over the country. These shops were technically illegal, selling black market cannabis products in polished retail storefronts in cities everywhere. In many places like Vancouver, the authorities tended to look the other way.

On the medical side, 2016 was the year we saw the MMPR challenged by B.C. resident Neil Allard, who wanted to re-implement personal production licenses for patients. From 2013, medical marijuana patients could access cannabis solely through licensed producers. The Federal Court of Canada ruled in Neil’s favour, and we got the Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations (ACMPR). Under the ACMPR, the number of cannabis plants a medical marijuana patient can grow at home depends on their cannabis prescription from their doctor.

In 2017, Trudeau's Liberal government proposed the Cannabis Act, to legalize nonmedical cannabis for adults 18 years of age and older. The Cannabis Act is scheduled to go into effect nationwide in 2018. We’ll have to wait and see how this new chapter of marijuana in Canada plays out.

Photo credit: Alex Indigo