The Complete History of Cannabis in Canada
- 1609: Cannabis Comes to Canada
There is some controversy as to whether cannabis hemp is native to the Americas or was brought by European immigrants to the New World. Although Jacques Cartier did mention in his journals that he saw “hempe” growing in Canada, there is a question as to whether he meant cannabis or simply long-stemmed fibrous plants.
It is known that cannabis hemp was among the first crops sown by a European on Canadian soil. They were harvested by Louis Hebert, a successful Parisian apothecary who was lured to Canada by his good friend and explorer Samuel de Champlain. Hebert emigrated to Nova France (New France, now Nova Scotia) in 1609 with his wife and children, bringing his extensive knowledge of herbs and drugs with him to the New World.
- 17th & 18th Centuries: Cannabis in the New World
By the late 1500s cannabis hemp had become a scarce commodity in Europe. Holland had gained a monopoly on the importation of cheap hemp from the East Indies, and naval blockades cut off the traditional supply of Russian hemp that had been easily obtained since the height of the Roman Empire.
Since huge amounts of hemp were needed by all of the European naval powers to outfit their warships, merchants, and naval fleets, the European monarchs looked to the New World as an alternate source of cannabis. Thus at the dawn of the seventeenth century Spain was sowing hemp in Chile, New England was growing hemp for Britain, and the French Royal Warehouses promised to buy all the hemp that Canadian farmers could grow.
During this period bounties were often awarded for hemp cultivation, many taxes could be paid in hemp stalks, and severe penalties were often imposed upon farmers who did not produce a sufficient quantity of cannabis hemp. Many modern cities and regions took their names from their main crop, producing Hampshires, Hempsteads, and Hamptons.
The difficulty at this time was not in growing cannabis hemp, but rather in preparing it for market. Sophisticated hemp breaking machinery was not invented until the 1920s. Prior to that time hemp was of necessity a labour intensive crop, requiring a process called “retting” to prepare it for use. The long outer fibres of the cannabis plant needed to be separated from the inner pulpy hurds, and this was accomplished by soaking the stalks in water until the inner hurds had rotted away sufficiently for the fibres to be easily removed.
- 1800-1900: Drug Trade & Drug War
The importance of cannabis hemp diminished somewhat in the nineteenth century. Although trees did not replace cannabis hemp as a primary source of paper until the late 1800s, the advent of steam power reduced the need for hemp canvas sails in the navy, and the invention of the cotton gin allowed cotton fibers to be retrieved with much less labour than hemp.
The nineteenth century also saw the birth of the first international trade in mind-altering substances. The world trade in drugs began to pick up speed during the nineteenth century. A prime mover in this trade was Britain, whose naval supremacy allowed her to trade extensively in tea, alcohol, tobacco and opium all around the world.
Opium was popular amongst the Chinese, but banned by the Chinese rulers. The Chinese government accepted only gold at this time for the huge quantities of tea which Britons consumed fanatically, and the dynasties of China had succeeded in monopolizing the world’s tea production. The gold payments to China were bankrupting the British treasury in the 1820’s, so in order to recoup this gold, opium was sold back to Chinese consumers through various Chinese intermediaries (the “hongs”). The Chinese lost their monopoly when tea plants were smuggled out of China in the 1850?s and tea plantations were established in India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka).
The spreading use of opium among the Chinese population caused alarm among the leaders of the Chinese government, who finally decided to ban all trade in opium within their nation. This action shut off a huge market from British opium traders, and in 1839 Britain declared war on China to maintain the right to sell opium to the Chinese. Once the British had won “the Opium War” they created what the Chinese called the “Unequal Treaties”, which stated that China had to pay the full costs of the war and conceded the British a trading outpost island (Hong Kong) until the year 1997.
- 1871-1907: Gold, Exploitation, Racism.
In 1871 gold was discovered along the Fraser River in British Columbia. About two thousand Chinese came from the exhausted California gold mines to work in the new mines along the Fraser River. In 1881 the Onderdonk Construction Company was granted permission by the Canadian government to bring in 17,000 Chinese labourers from the South China province of Kwagtung to work on the railroad in British Columbia. The Onderdonk Construction Company promoted a “get rich quick” scheme to entice workers, promising them a quick return to their homeland and riches beyond their wildest dreams.
The callous exploitation of these men who would subsequently face brutal labour gangs is one of the darker moments in Canadian history. Over 4,000 Chinese labourers died building the great national railway. When the railway was completed and the gold mines were exhausted, Vancouver found itself with thousands of impoverished Chinese living in tents and shanty towns. These men were willing to take any work available, often at wages around four dollars a month.
Barred from most social intercourse and disdainful of alcohol, the Chinese population lived a ghetto like existence in Chinatown. Since North America was considered essentially British by the Chinese, they saw no reason not to bring into Canada opium sold to them by the British. Opium use became a common means for the Chinese population to ease the pain of their meager circumstances.
Organized labour movements within British Columbia feared depressed wages and a flooded labour market, and quickly came to see the Chinese “coolies” as their enemies. They lobbied the government to restrict further immigration and the Canadian federal government responded by instituting a head tax on Chinese immigrants of fifty dollars, a tax which steadily increased until it had reached five hundred dollars a head by 1904. Hatred of the Chinese population in Vancouver resulted in labour riots during 1907.
- 1907-1923: Prohibition, Legislation, Propaganda.
Then Deputy Minister of Labour, William Lyon MacKenzie King, was appointed to investigate and settle Chinese property damage claims. During his investigation, MacKenzie King discovered the use of opium among the Chinese population, and hit upon a unique solution to the labour crisis. MacKenzie King decided that the only means of eliminating the civil unrest was to eliminate the Chinese. In his capacity as a private citizen he submitted a report titled “The Need for the Suppression of Opium Traffic in Canada”. This report was largely based on sensational newspaper stories depicting the ruin of white women caused by opium use.
Mackenzie King’s report led to the creation of the Opium Narcotic Act of 1908, which prohibited the import, manufacture and sale of opiates for non-medical purposes. The Opium Narcotic Act of 1908 has provided the basis for all other Canadian legislation dealing with the use of illicit drugs to this day, despite the fact that it was created solely to eliminate an undesirable element from the labour pool, and gave no regard to medical, social or any other scientific research to back up its necessity or wisdom. In fact, it is doubtful that MacKenzie King had ever intended the Act to be applied to any segment of the white population at all.
Difficulties in enforcing the Act and the development of illicit smuggling networks prompted the establishment of a royal commission on Chinese opium smuggling. The recommendations of the commission resulted in the Opium and Drug Act of 1911. This Act expanded the list of prohibited drugs, made simple use and possession of the prohibited drugs an offense, and widened police powers of search and seizure.
In 1920, one year before MacKenzie King became Prime Minister of Canada, the Opium and Drug Branch was established by the Department of Health, and was put in charge of enforcing narcotics legislation. The RCMP worked very closely with the Drug Branch, and their service was rewarded with ever more lenient laws regarding their right to search and seize the property of suspected drug users.
Up until the 1920’s, cannabis extracts were used in patent medicines to treat about twenty different ailments. Queen Victoria herself was an avid advocate of cannabis medicine in her lifetime, as well as feeding it to all the songbirds and rare birds in the Royal sanctuaries.
During this period three states in the US had made cannabis illegal, all without the benefit of any scientific studies. These laws were put in place to harass and deport the minority groups who favoured different drugs than those of the European population. These unfounded and racist laws were to find their way into Canada, assisted by Maclean’s Magazine, which in the early 1920’s ran a series of articles about the illicit drug trade in Canada.
These articles were written by Mrs. Emily Murphy under the pen name of “Janey Canuck”, and were later compiled into a larger book entitled The Black Candle. Mrs. Emily Murphy was Canada’s first female police magistrate judge, and was also a leader of the Irish Orange Order, a religious group which then wanted a pure white Canada.
The articles that Mrs. Emily Murphy wrote were very biased and sensationalized. In one chapter a Los Angeles County Chief of Police is quoted as saying that
…persons using this narcotic smoke the dry leaves of the plant, which has the effect of driving them completely insane. The addict loses all sense of moral responsibility. Addicts to this drug, while under its influence are immune to pain. While in this condition they become raving maniacs and are liable to kill or indulge in any forms of violence to other persons, using the most savage methods of cruelty without, as said before, any sense of moral responsibility.
When The Black Candle was released in 1922 its sole purpose was to arouse public opinion and pressure the government into creating stricter drug laws. The RCMP used this book to increase its power along with making cannabis hemp illegal under the name “marijuana” in the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act of 1923.
- 1938-1961: Studies Ignored; Penalties Increased.
In 1938 the Mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia, commissioned the Greater Medical Association of New York to study the effects and use of marijuana. Their report was published in 1944, and remains one of the most comprehensive studies done on the health and social effects of marijuana smoking. Among other things, the La Guardia Report found that:
the behaviour of the smoker is of a friendly, sociable character, and aggressiveness and belligerence and not commonly seen.
The study also found no relationship between crimes of violence and marijuana. The recommendations of this report were ignored.
In 1954 a new offense was created in Canada, this being possession for the purpose of trafficking. The sentence for this crime was immediately doubled in the following year, raising the maximum penalty to fourteen years imprisonment from seven.
In the late 1950’s a federation of welfare agencies, supported by the British Columbia Medical Association, lobbied the federal government to take a more realistic view of the necessity for harsh anti-drug laws in Canada. They urged that the laws be re-written to at least distinguish between the so-called “hard” and “soft” drugs. The National Medical Association did not support this recommendation, and it was ignored.
The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs took effect in 1961. While this Act eliminated whipping as a remnant of the anti-Chinese days, it also increased the minimum penalty for cultivation to seven years, and that for importation and exportation to fourteen years. This made the marijuana laws the second heaviest minimum sentence in Canadian criminal law, surpassed only by that imposed for capital and non-capital murder.
- 1961-1980: Movements Against Prohibition
The sixties saw the use of marijuana among Canadian youth become more widespread than ever before. The Canadian government also seemed to be easing up on marijuana prohibition. The Minister of Health and Welfare was quoted as saying that:
both the Canadian and US governments, by employing scare tactics, have been guilty of the indiscriminate overkill which has been effective only in reducing our own credibility.
In the early 1970’s both the Canadian and American Medical Associations agreed that marijuana is not a narcotic. The Le Dain Commission was appointed in Canada to undertake a complete and factual study of marijuana use and it’s effects. The results of the study were presented to the government after four years and four million dollars worth of research.
Like the New York La Guardia study of 1944, the Le Dain Commission recognized that the use of marijuana is not linked to violent crime in any way. It also concluded that prohibitionary laws have only served to create a sub-culture with little respect for the law and law enforcement, as well as diverting law enforcement capability, clogging the judicial system, and providing a base of funds for organized crime. The recommendations of the Le Dain Commission ranged from outright legalization to small fines for marijuana use.
In 1971 there was a “smoke-in” in Vancouver’s Gastown. The event was called Grasstown and attracted a few hundred activists, hippies and curious onlookers. Although this event began well, with songs being sung and a twenty-foot joint being passed around, the chief of police at this time could not tolerate this flagrant violation of the law, and had the event stormed by mounted policemen followed by the riot squad. The end result was that many injuries were suffered by those participating in the event, as well as by innocent bystanders and local shopkeepers who did not identify themselves quickly enough.
By the late 1970s there seemed to be consensus in parliament that marijuana needed to be legalized. Many politicians of the time, including Joe Clark, Pierre Trudeau, and Jean Chretien publicly stated that they would enact some form of marijuana decriminalization as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the election of Ronald Reagan as President of the United States in 1980 ruined any chance of this happening. With Nancy Reagan at the helm, the War on Drugs began in earnest once again.
- 1980-1992: Twelve Years of American Drug Warfare
The next twelve years of the Reagan-Bush Administration saw the budget of the US Drug Enforcement Agency skyrocket, the creation of mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession, and the introduction of American troops to South America and Panama, where the War on Drugs was taken to foreign soil. The Canadian government halted plans to legalize marijuana out of deference to the American position, not wishing to create any conflict with our great neighbour to the South. The holding pattern has continued to this day.
This essay is not nearly long enough to give a full accounting of US government atrocities committed in the name of a “War on Some Drugs”. Programs like the spraying of Paraquat and other poisons over outdoor cannabis plantations in Jamaica and Mexico, resulting in contamination to local water supplies and biological damage to children, which continues to this day. Programs like those engaged in throughout South America, where US troops burned villages and killed native farmers in an effort to cut off the supply of drugs.
The Reagan-Bush administration was clearly shown to have dealt in large amounts of cocaine in order to bypass the need for Congressional funding. George Bush was also a director of Eli-Lilly, a major American pharmaceutical company, and remained a major shareholder throughout his political career. America surpassed every other nation in the world when it came to imprisoning its own population, another fact which continues to this day. South Africa and the old Soviet Union were distant second and third at this time.
More Americans were imprisoned for drug offenses during the 1980s than the total that were in prison at the beginning of the era.All of these activities had some success in suppressing the cannabis trade, but the result was only an increase in the popularity of cocaine, as it was smaller and much easier to conceal and smuggle.
In 1988, while cannabis consumers were reeling from this American War on Some Drugs, the Canadian Parliament passed what must be the most severe cannabis censorship law in the world. To advocate the legalization of cannabis, to promote the consumption of marijuana for medical reasons, to advocate the use of cannabis hemp for fibre, to show how marijuana is grown, to put out newsletters, magazines or videos talking positively about marijuana (or any “drug, herb or substance” prohibited by government) could invite a criminal prosecution with penalties of $100,000 for a first offense, and $300,000 for a second offense, with six months to one year in jail. Only one member of parliament dissented: Svend Robinson, (NDP ? Burnaby-Kingsway).
In April of 1992, NORML Canada was charged under section 462.2 of the criminal code for handing out pro-legalization brochures to high school students in Ontario. After raiding the home of Umberto Iorfida (also the office of NORML Canada) and seizing “information promoting the legalization and use of cannabis marijuana” as well as mailing lists of contributors, police dropped all charges against NORML Canada two months later. Umberto filed a writ with the Ontario courts asking for constitutional remedy to this suppression of his freedom of speech.
In October of 1994, the Ontario Court of Justice declared that it agreed with Umberto’s complaint that section 462.2 stifled legitimate dissent and expression. The prohibition on literature was overturned. The crown has appealed the decision, and lawyers Alan Young and Edward Morgan expect to go to the Supreme Court of Canada to protect our freedom of speech.
In April of 1993, Vancouver residents held the first smoke-in in that city since 1971. Over three-thousand people gathered at the Vancouver Art Gallery and marched to City Hall to protest the unfairness of Canada’s Narcotic Control Act. Grassroots organizations have been springing up all across North America, demanding that the drug laws be changed.
People are becoming aware of the real costs of waging this so-called War on Drugs. The economic drain, social strife and government oppression resulting from this situation have become apparent as our governments go to more and more extreme lengths to curtail the use of cannabis, as well as that of other herbs and intoxicants. The Conservative government introduced a bill in 1992 which would have doubled the penalties for marijuana possession and widened the scope of prohibited substances. The bill did not pass because of the Conservative election defeat in 1993.
The new Liberal government has introduced Bill C-7, which is very similar to the Conservative bill. Bill C-7 is now coming up to 3rd reading in Parliament. It doubles penalties for first time possession of marijuana, defines anything that can alter consciousness as a controlled substance under the Act, and increases the police’s arbitrary powers of search and seizure, among other things.
Bill C-7 effectively brings the American war on drugs into Canada and makes Canadian civil rights subservient to the American-driven international conventions. The other thing Bill C-7 is supposed to do is to legalize the industrial low THC strain of the plant. The Minister of Health, Diane Marlow, has stated that she will be issuing licenses for agricultural hemp cultivation once Bill C-7 has become law. In fact, she could issue licenses immediately, as licensed hemp is already legal to grow in Canada. It is only a policy decision by the Ministry of Health that has kept permits from being issued to grow cannabis. In 1993, only 11 licenses were granted, all either to police officers or for limited scientific research. In 1994 one license was granted to farmer Joe Strobel in Ontario to grow 10 acres of cannabis for research into its agricultural potential. It is likely that more such licenses will be issued in 1995.
While Bill C-7 does allow the industrial strain to be grown for fiber and hurd (the inside portion of the plant used to make paper), it does not allow the production of the seed. The seed (technically a fruit) is the best overall source of protein on the planet. Keeping control of the seeds by forcing the farmer to buy the approved seeds from the seed company turns hemp into a cultivated crop that would have to be grown on a farm. This defeats the benefits of hemp being an uncultivated plant that can be grown by anyone, anywhere. Sterilizing the seed also substantially reduces its nutritional content, thereby denying Canadians a major food source.
A subcommittee of the Standing Committee on Health and Welfare which reviewed Bill C-7 heard testimony from different groups concerned with drug policy and public health. Over two-thirds of those who testified were opposed to Bill C-7 in its present form because they felt it was too harsh and restrictive, including the Addiction Research Foundation, the Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse, the Canadian and Quebec Bar Associations, the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Public Health Association, and others.
- The Future
The movement to end cannabis prohibition has made significant gains over the last few months. A great many hemp stores have opened across Canada, a number of them selling pipes and bongs (in direct violation of section 462.2 of the Criminal Code), along with hemp textiles and seed oil products. Large amounts of information about the many beneficial uses of cannabis have been produced and distributed to an ever expanding number of Canadians. The Chief Coroner of British Columbia recently examined the situation surrounding the high number of drug-related deaths in his province, and his recommendations included the legalization of cannabis and decriminalization of “hard drugs”. Members of Parliament from all four major parties have spoken out against the current system of criminal prohibition.
The momentum which this cause has gathered must not be allowed to falter. This process of education and liberation must continue if we, as Canadians, wish to live in a truly free and democratic society. It is essential that people who understand the necessity of ending drug prohibition work towards that goal. You must write to your representatives in your municipal, provincial and federal governments and tell them how you feel. Participate in rallies and marches. Become aware of the issues and events within the cannabis community. If a serious effort is made at this time, then perhaps Canadians will once again be able to cultivate cannabis and enjoy its benefits without fear of persecution.