Read the rest of the articles in the The History of Cannabis in Canada series.
1800s: The Golden Age of Cannabis in Canada
During the 1800s, Britain continued to push for more cannabis production in Canada. In 1822, the Parliament of Upper Canada invested heavily in hemp processing machinery and over the next century a new hemp mill was built on average every 15 years.
Canada’s cannabis industry had finally come of age. Cannabis farming and processing was a powerful part of the Canadian economy. By the end of the century, hemp mills thrived in every province from Nova Scotia to British Columbia.
Throughout the 1800s, tincture of cannabis was used to treat many different ailments. Queen Victoria’s physician prescribed her cannabis extract to treat menstrual cramps, and called cannabis “one of the most valuable medicines we possess.” Cannabis seed was also fed to all the songbirds in the Royal sanctuaries.
The late 1800s was a peak time for cannabis in Canada. Along with widespread production of hemp textiles, cannabis tincture was also becoming a popular medicine.
Over 100 scientific papers on the benefits of cannabis medicine were published in North America between 1840-1900.
Cannabis tinctures were prescribed for a wide range of conditions, including epilepsy, migraines, depression, gout, menstrual cramps and chronic pain.
Liquid cannabis extracts were sold over the counter at drug stores, marketed by major companies like Parke Davis, Eli Lilly and Squibb. Pre-rolled cannabis cigarettes were sometimes sold as an asthma remedy.
At this time, cannabis grown for rope and fabrics was usually called hemp. Most people didn’t realize that this was the same plant as their medicinal cannabis tincture.
Britian and China Fight “Opium War”
To understand how cannabis came to be banned in Canada, we need to look at the history of what is now called the War on Drugs.
During the 1800s, Britain’s naval supremacy allowed her merchants to dominate the global trade in drugs like alcohol, tobacco, opium and tea.
The British people were heavy users of tea leaves imported from China.
Britain didn’t have anything of interest to the Chinese, except gold. The trade imbalance was bankrupting the British treasury.
The British East India Company had a monopoly on India’s opium supply and began selling opium to the Chinese market. Opium was popular among the Chinese, but as its use spread the Chinese government tried to ban it. Prohibiting opium only served to keep prices high, ensuring greater profits for British smugglers.
British smuggler’s ships were more powerful than those in the Chinese fleet, and based their opium smuggling on small islands which were easily defended. By 1831 the opium trade had a value twice that of the tea trade, thus draining China’s economy.
China’s government kept trying to block the opium trade, so Britain declared war in 1840. Their powerful navy defeated China, winning the “Opium Wars.” Britain forced China to accept their opium and also give them Hong Kong as a safe outpost for the Opium trade, which was only returned to China in 1997.
1871-1911: Anti-Asian Racism Starts Canada’s War on Drugs
In 1871, gold was discovered along the Fraser River in British Columbia. Thousands of Chinese immigrants came to work in the new mines.
Between 1872 and 1885, about 20,000 Chinese immigrated into British Columbia, almost all of them men.
Most of the chinese immigrants came to Canada to work on building the railroad to British Columbia. They were enticed with a “get rich quick” scheme, promised high pay, fair treatment and a swift return to their homeland.
These men were callously exploited, placed in brutal labour gangs and often worked to death. It’s estimated that between 600 and 2000 Chinese labourers died building the national railway.
Since Canada was considered essentially British by the Chinese, they saw no reason not to bring into Canada the opium originally sold to them by the British.
As soon as the railway was completed in 1885, the Canadian government wanted to stop more Chinese immigration. They immediately passed a $50 “head tax” on new Chinese immigrants, making it difficult for these men to bring over their wives and children. By 1903 the tax had increased to $500 ($8000 in modern value).
When the railway was finished and the gold mines were exhausted, Vancouver became home to thousands of impoverished Chinese living in tents and shanty towns. These men were willing to take any work available at a lower wage than most white workers.
The Vancouver Chinese lived a ghetto-like existence in Chinatown, barred from much of mainstream white society.
Opium use became a common way for these Chinese labourers to ease their pain and treat common ailments such as fever, diarrhoea, rheumatism and cholera.
White labourers saw the Chinese “coolies” as their competitors, and used violence and riots to stop Chinese workers from gaining employment. The first anti-chinese riot was in 1887, when a meeting of the Vancouver Anti-Chinese League turned into a mob attack on a camp of Chinese workers. Violent clashes continued over the next two decades.
A 1907 rally by the Vancouver Asiatic Exclusion League demanded a ban against non-whites in the workforce, then exploded into violence and vandalism. Over 4000 white rioters attacked Chinatown and Japantown, smashing windows and beating up residents.
The federal government sent the Deputy Minister of Labour, William Lyon MacKenzie King, to investigate and settle Chinese property damage claims. While in Vancouver, MacKenzie King sympathized with the white workers and decided to help reduce the Chinese population.
On his own initiative, King wrote a government report called “The Need for the Suppression of the Opium Traffic in Canada.” His writing was largely based on sensational newspaper stories depicting the ruin of white women in Chinese opium dens. Newspapers often ran staged photographs for maximum effect.
The “Yellow Peril” Anti-Opium Campaign
Newspapers, women’s groups, labour unions and church congregations were all campaigning against the “drug evil.” The “Yellow Peril” became a favorite topic for editorials and cartoonists. Politicians held anti-chinese, anti-drug rallies with public burnings of opium and opium pipes.
Canada’s first anti-drug law, the Opium Narcotic Act of 1908, was passed by the Minister of Labour less than three weeks after King delivered his report, showing that it was really a law to protect white workers by excluding and deporting the Chinese.
The new law banned the import, manufacture and sale of opiates for “non-medical” purposes. Opium was typically smoked by Chinese, which the law considered non-medical, while whites used it in “medical” tinctures and extracts which remained legal.
The Opium Narcotic Act of 1908 was not even debated in Parliament before being passed into law. It was designed purely to punish Chinese people and force them out of the country. There was no scientific, medical or social research done before passing Canada’s first anti-drug law.
Three years later, MacKenzie King was Minister of Labour, and he passed a stricter new law called the Opium and Drug Act. This law added morphine and cocaine to the list of banned drugs, and made simple use and possession a crime. It also expanded police powers of search and seizure, a trend which has continued to this day.