Why did it take so long to #legalizeit in Canada?
The Handbook / Culture / Cannabis in Canada: A history

Cannabis in Canada: A history

Why did it take so long to #legalizeit in Canada?

Words— Odessa Paloma Parker

With Canada’s legalization of marijuana coming into effect this month, we thought we’d explore the issue in a four-part series on Canadian cannabis. After exploring weed tech, this week, a brief history of Canada's relationship to cannabis.


There are plenty of people talking about cannabis right now: celebrities, politicians, doctors, mothers and more. They’ve raised their voices to discuss what’s likely to become one of Canada’s most defining moments as a country – the federal legalization of adult-use (recreational) cannabis. It’s the first G7 country to do so, and the eyes of the world will be watching to see what kind of model Canada creates and continues to craft over the years.


Canadians likely assume that the so-called Cannabis Act (Bill C-45, more formally) was a long time coming. I can’t count the number of people who’ve said to me, “Oh they’re legalizing weed? How will Toronto/Vancouver be any different?” The notion that these major cities – and the country as a whole – have had a long-standing lax attitude towards toking up is evident and, you might be surprised to know, is actually a misconception where history is concerned. Canada has actually had a lengthy participation in the “War on Drugs” that U.S. president Richard Nixon made a house-hold battle. In fact, as British Columbia-based author, professor and member of the Task Force on Marijuana Legalization and Regulation, Dr. Susan C. Boyd says, Canada was actually the envy of the States when it came to our cannabis regulations at one time.


Dr. Boyd has written several books on the topics of drug prohibition and social activism, and her work around the history of cannabis stems from her research “in the history of drug prohibition as a whole in Canada.” She pin-points homing in on pot as an interest to “when I was doing my PhD at the School of Criminology at SFU. I was looking at the origins of our drug laws and the history of our drug laws, especially in relation to its impact on women. But then I continued on in that vein, looking at different issues, looking at representations of criminalized drugs in film and in news media.”


While much of the coverage around cannabis use today focuses on the emergence of studies about its potential benefits and how it has become intrinsically linked with a contemporary fixation on ‘wellness’, Dr. Boyd points out that the rhetoric around weed – both political and media-wise – used to sing quite a different tune.


In the 19th century, cannabis was used as an ingredient in medicines and tonics purported to treat everything from asthma to ulcers. “Pharmaceutical companies such as [Bristol-Myers] Squib produced all these products that were legal, as all plant-based medicines were,” Dr. Boyd notes. “You could buy them through mail-order, through Sears and Eaton’s catalogues. You could go into a pharmacy and sometimes you could go into a general store.” The country became familiar with cannabis through advertisements for these medicinal products, and through doctors writing about them.



What Canadians weren’t doing, though, is lighting up. “Smoking cannabis they were not familiar with at all,” says Dr. Boyd. “That was really reported on in the early 1900s, and it was really more U.S.-based reporting on Mexican laborers and black jazz musicians consuming cannabis.”


What ensued through the following years was a tandem effort in Canada and the United States to vilify cannabis, linking it to the “foreign other” responsible for the downfall of ‘respectable’ society. “Plant-based drugs were demonized and linked to race-based policies,” she says. “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; there was just a conflation of different plants and drugs at that time in terms of their dangerousness, and in terms of profiling these racialized groups of people, and linking it to drug use.”


Dr. Boyd highlights a few Canadian news articles in the 1930s, each with a headline more hysterically negative than the last. “What’s interesting about our legislation is that we criminalized cannabis in 1923 (the U.S. didn’t federally criminalize pot until 1937) and really, there was very little discussion – public or government – about [adding] it to the drug schedule,” she says. “[And] there were no arrests for possession of marijuana following legislation. The first convictions were in 1937, which resulted in four possession convictions.”



If Canadians weren’t smoking up in vast numbers in the early part of the 20th century (and even if they were, there’s no evidence this would’ve prompted the complete undoing of society), why the anti-cannabis fervour? Dr. Boyd says it was a pervasive colonial (and puritanical) attitude at work that kept cannabis on the wrong side of the law. “I think Canadians at that time sort of had a colonizing view of white supremacy – that it was a white nation, white Canada…. The drug laws were seen as regulating these foreigners. If you look at [our] drug policies, they’re so race-based it boggles the mind. Our first drug prohibition was alcohol prohibition for status Indians, and that lasted more than a century.” Additionally, she adds, the unfavourable light on cannabis “was pervasive because we saw it as a plant-based drug and [we] deemed plant-based drugs as inferior to pharmaceutical drugs.” Coupled with the negativity towards cannabis south of the border, it rolled along as the ‘demon weed’ for years.


As we moved through the 1960s, a shift began to occur when it came to perceptions about cannabis when the image of a new type of cannabis consumer came into view. “In 1960, there were 21 possession of cannabis arrests. In 1972, there were over 50,000 cannabis possession arrests,” Dr. Boyd says. “This is due to the fact that in the ‘60s, for the first time in history, white middle-class youth began to use cannabis. It was their illegal drug of choice, I guess you could say. And that stemmed from a counter-culture movement in and outside of Canada.”



Dr. Boyd says that while people who were poor, marginalized and of colour continued to be the primary targets of criminal cannabis law, a different kind of family now had children being arrested for cannabis use, which spurred on a call for government intervention. “For the first time in our history, white people were associated with criminalized drug use,” she notes. “And that really changed the discourse in a certain way, because what happened then is that parents – white, middle-class and upper-class parents, were upset that their children were being arrested. And they started to demand some change. The federal government responded to that anger by these parents and youths, and established the Commission of Enquiry into the Non-medical Use of Drugs, more commonly referred to as the Le Dain Commission.”



The Le Dain Commission, which was assembled during Pierre Trudeau’s first term as Prime Minister, began in 1969 and concluded in 1972. The outcome of their report was favourable towards amending legislation surrounding cannabis, but it only led to a slight softening of regulations. Further activism came in later decades from the medical cannabis community, leading to its federal regulation being passed in 2001.


As we now stand with both feet planted in a new era of legalized adult-use cannabis, Dr. Boyd says that looking back at the origin of upholding of cannabis’ criminalization can help us set a better course for years ahead. She quotes James Baldwin’s notion that “History is literally present in all that we do” when she speaks about people who approach her and say that they’re not interested in hearing about what came before when it comes to cannabis – only that they want to change things now.


“We’re born into a historical moment and that shapes our belief system and attitudes about activities,” she says, adding that this type of condition can’t lead to the best of outcomes. “I do think that it’s important to understand our history of cannabis criminalization because then you can also look at what groups of people were targeted by that legislation and police profiling. Historically it has been poor people, people of colour. It’s not to say that white, middle-class [people] don’t get arrested – they do at times. But they have the social and economic support to make sure that the charges are dropped or that the penalties are lesser; they can afford good legal defence. That’s not available to all Canadians.”


Dr. Boyd’s observation of the past is what shapes her impression of the current Cannabis Act, and how it could be improved. “I wouldn’t want to lose sight that Canada will be the first G7 nation to legally regulate cannabis at the federal level; I do believe it’s an historic event. It’s an important event. But could we go further? Yes. We could push to amend that bill to reduce the penalties to make them more in line with tobacco and alcohol infractions. We could provide better avenues for small growers and retailers to enter the legal market. We could have a more inclusive policy for small growers and retailers, especially for those people who were criminalized in the past…. I’m hoping that the activism will continue so that happens down the road; especially the issue to exonerate people with non-violent cannabis convictions. [Ed. note: The federal government has since announced a plan to expedite pardons.] That is important so that they could also become part of this new legal market.”



With the roots of cannabis criminalization becoming exposed and slowly addressed in other parts of the world – as part of its new legislation, the State of California has implemented reparation-focused initiatives, for example – Canada has the opportunity to re-examine how it has handled prohibition and the resulting stigma around cannabis consumption.


Change will also come from what happens after legalization day, too, as Canadians become more educated and ultimately comfortable with the idea that the people around them use it, and shouldn’t be judged if they do – especially when it comes to the notion of getting high because they like how it feels. “I do think it’s been underplayed, and I do think there’s resistance in the media and elsewhere to talk about the positive elements of recreational use,” Dr. Boyd says. “I hope that will change because we recognize that having a glass of wine for some people is pleasurable…. If we don’t acknowledge that, then our understanding of people’s experiences will be very limited.”


Odessa Paloma Parker is a Toronto-based writer, stylist and contributing editor to the Globe and Mail. You can also find her on Instagram.

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