Read the rest of the articles in the The History of Cannabis in Canada series.
Marijuana Banned, Hemp Struggles
In 1923, one year after The Black Candle was published, the possession and sale of “marihuana” was banned in Canada under the new Opium and Narcotic Act. This was Canada’s third anti-drug law in 15 years, each one broader and stricter than the last.
This began a difficult time for cannabis in Canada. Although “marihuana” had been banned, cannabis hemp was still being grown across the country for industrial purposes. However, the market for commercial cannabis products had been shrinking for decades.
By the end of the 1800s, cannabis had become less important as a global commodity. The development of steam-powered engines had greatly reduced the use of cannabis fibre for ropes and sails.
The invention and spread of the cotton engine also reduced the use of cannabis, as cotton was more easily processed into textiles and fabrics. Cannabis still required a great deal of manual labour to separate the inner pulpy hurds from the strong, outer fibres, making it too expensive to compete for most uses.
New chemical technology allowed trees to be pulped and made into cheap paper. By 1900, almost all the world’s paper came from old-growth forests.
Hemp Starts Making a Comeback
Although most Canadians knew of cannabis as a medicine and hemp as a textile, they didn’t know what “marihuana” was. So when the Liberal government of Prime Minister Mackenzie King banned marijuana cultivation in the Opium and Narcotic Act of 1923, there was no public outcry, and no debate in Parliament at all.
Incredibly, the same year marijuana was banned, the Canadian government also passed The Hemp Bounty Act. This law financed Canada’s seventh hemp mill, the Manitoba Cordage Company, and subsidized the cultivation of cannabis in the prairie provinces.
The Minister of Agriculture declared that “there is a huge market in Canada for products made from hemp.”
New technologies were being developed which made it easier to harvest and use cannabis for fibre. Despite the new-found fear of “marihuana”, it looked as if cannabis farming was about to make a comeback.
Between 1923 and 1929, Mackenzie King’s government passed several more anti-drug laws, including a mandatory six-months in prison for possession of cannabis or opium. Whipping was added to the punishments for trafficking.
Howard Fraleigh – Canadian Hemp Pioneer
Despite these harsh laws against marijuana, Canada remained at the forefront of cannabis hemp harvesting and processing technology.
One high-profile Canadian cannabis farmer of this time was Howard Fraleigh of Forest, Ontario, who was also a Conservative Member of the Legislature. He designed and built his own specialized cannabis harvesting equipment and had a state-of-the-art hemp fibre separation mill.
He also worked to develop a number of other different processing technologies which, if put into full production after the ban, would have probably brought hemp back as a competitive material against cotton and synthetics.
Fraleigh worked with companies like International Harvester to perfect a new machine which had been developed in the US for separating cannabis fibre from the inner hurds, called a “decorticator”. This greatly reduced the need for manual labour, while also increasing fiber yield. Fraleigh also developed new processing techniques. As this new technology spread during the 1930s, cannabis hemp was poised to make a comeback.
In 1929, Henry Ford sent officials to visit Canadian cannabis farms in Alberta, before starting his own 200-acre test crop. Twelve years later, the Ford Motor Company unveiled their “grown from the soil” automobile. It had a body made from cannabis fibre, wheat straw and resin, which could withstand a blow better than steel.
In 1938, Popular Mechanics magazine ran an article titled “The New Billion Dollar Crop”. The article explained how the new decorticators meant that cannabis hurds, which had previously been discarded as a waste product, could now be used to make more than 25,000 products, ranging from dynamite and cellophane to papers and plastics.
That same year, Mackenzie King passed another new anti-drug law in Canada, and this time cannabis was banned in all its forms, including hemp. For the first time in over three centuries, and right when it had been on the verge of a great resurgence, no legal cannabis was being grown in Canada.