WHAT'S WITH WEED?

A History of Cannabis in Canada

How did medical and recreational cannabis use get legalized in Canada? Why was it prohibited in the first place? What were the social, political, economic, and legal factors that impacted cannabis legalization over the last century?

Here's a timeline that summarizes the journey to cannabis legalization in Canada.

FROM CANNABIS TO CLOTHES

1605: Indigenous people across Turtle Island (known as North America) used cannabis and hemp to make clothing, in hunting equipment such as nets, and in commerce (selling, trading, and exporting) long before European colonizers arrived on their shores.

CANNABIS USE ENDORSED IN NOVA SCOTIA

1897: The Nova Scotia Medical Association endorses cannabis use for both medical and recreational purposes.

CANADA PASSES THE OPIUM ACT

1908: The Opium Act, Canada's first anti-drug law, was passed. The law itself was not a method of controlling substance use, but instead an avenue of 'social order' - the development of the law was mainly fueled by anti-Asian racism and xenophobic sentiments, hoping to curb immigration of Chinese people to Canada.

CANNABIS BECOMES ILLEGAL

1923: Canada adds cannabis (and hemp) to the Opium and Drugs Act and cannabis becomes illegal.

To this day, the exact reason why cannabis was outlawed remains a mystery - at the time, hardly anyone was using cannabis.

However, drug use easily fit into a racist and anti-immigrant narrative that many prominent Canadian politicians and leaders perpetrated at the time: that racialized people were threatening 'respectable white society'.

“Plant-based drugs were demonized and linked to race-based policies. For smoking opium, it was Chinese-Canadians and the fear of the mixing of races – that women would be corrupted by Chinese men, or Black men [with cannabis], and abandon their family [to] have a life of crime and addiction. Cannabis easily fit into these tropes that already existed.”

- Susan C. Boyd, Busted: An Illustrated History of Drug Prohibition in Canada

FIRST CANNABIS ARREST MADE

1937: First cannabis arrest ever in Canada is made, more than 10 years after the substance was outlawed.

JAILTIME FOR CANNABIS-RELATED OFFENCES INCREASES

1961: The government classifies cannabis as a Schedule 1 offense under the Narcotic Control Act, punishable by seven years in prison for possession and up to life for supplying or trafficking.

CANNABIS POPULARITY EXPLODES

1968: The number of cannabis-related convictions jumps to 2,300 this year alone (compared to 25 convictions total in the entire 16 year period from 1930 to 1946, and 20 convictions during 1962). Its rising popularity is attributed to 'hippies and college students'. 

EFFECTS OF CANNABIS STUDIED

1972: Due to cannabis' skyrocketing popularity in the late 1960s, the federal government forms a Royal Commission, known as Le Dain Commission, to study the effects of cannabis use.

They release their findings this year. The majority findings of the commission? To decriminalize cannabis possession - they say cannabis prohibition is too costly to individuals and the state.

CANADA'S WAR ON DRUGS BEGINS

1987: Prime Minister Brian Mulroney announces a $210 million anti-drug strategy, including enhancing police capacity to respond to new drugs on the market.

Opposition parties and critics believed that Mulroney's government was exaggerating the issue for political favour. Canada is set to attend a United Nations conference on drug use the month following the plan's announcement.

MAN ARRESTED FOR USING CANNABIS FOR MEDICAL REASONS

1996: Terry Parker is arrested for the charges of cultivating, possessing, and trafficking cannabis. He was caught growing cannabis to treat his epileptic seizures.

MEDICAL USE OF CANNABIS LEGALIZED

2000: The Ontario Court of Appeal upholds that prohibiting cannabis use infringed on Terry Parker's right to life, ruling the prohibition of cannabis for medical use unconstitutional. This case was a landmark in ending the medical prohibition of cannabis in Canada.

CANNABIS IS LEGALIZED IN CANADA

2018: Cannabis is legalized for recreational use for adults in Canada (18+) through the Cannabis Act, which has 3 goals:

  • “Keep cannabis out of the hands of youth,”
  • “Keep profits out of the pockets of criminals,” and
  • “Protect public health and safety by allowing adults access to legal cannabis.”


However, those with cannabis-related criminal offences were not automatically pardoned.
 80% of the criminal offences related to cannabis are cannabis possession.

PARDONING PROGRAM FOR POSSESSION LAUNCHED

2019: Federal government launches a new program that allows individuals with a criminal record for simple cannabis possession to apply for a pardon.

As of March 2021 (20 months after the program launched), only 395 people had been pardoned, despite the government estimating around 10,000 Canadians to be eligible. Critics call the process inaccessible, and "a failure".

REGULATED CANNABIS SALES REACH $2.6 BILLION

2020: A study of Canada's regulated cannabis industry finds that 84% of industry executives are white, and 86% of them are men.

The regulated (legal) sales of cannabis for 2020 in Canada total CA$2.6 billion.

Looking to learn more about cannabis? Check out our What's With Weed featured collection of resources!

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