The History of Cannabis in Canada – Part 5: Cannabis Use Spreads, Prohibition Intensifies

Read the rest of the articles in the The History of Cannabis in Canada series.

WWII: Hemp For Victory

Canada’s first ban on cannabis hemp was immediately set aside with the outbreak of World War II in 1939. Cannabis was now grown for the war effort.

Japan’s invasion of the Pacific Islands had cut off the Allies’ supply of rope and canvas. Canada once again encouraged farmers to grow cannabis hemp. In 1942 the US government reversed their ban on hemp too, and produced a pro-cannabis film for farmers called “Hemp for Victory.”

The Nazis also promoted cannabis farming for their war effort, distributing a rhyming cannabis-cultivation guide (pictured below) to German farmers, illustrated with funny cartoons.

The close of World War II marked the end of cannabis hemp cultivation in Canada, but also the start of marijuana smoking becoming mainstream.

Soldiers Spread Cannabis Use

During the war, many Canadian soldiers were introduced to smoking marijuana and hashish while in Europe. Some brought their newfound taste for cannabis back home.

Before this time, smoking cannabis was rare in Canada — there were only 25 marijuana-related convictions nationwide between 1930 and 1946.

Canadian soldiers who had sampled marijuana in Europe returned to college campuses at the end of the war and spread knowledge of this enjoyable and healing herb to their fellow students.

The growth of a white, middle class audience for jazz music also helped spread an appreciation for marijuana’s effects.

The integration of blacks and whites and the use of cannabis at jazz clubs created a stir. Popular newspapers called it “the jazz menace.”

A study in Toronto found that there was considerable cannabis use during the 1950s, but that it was mainly limited to three groups: Swingers, Squares and Beats.

Swingers were 30-45, and defined as criminals & entertainers.

Squares were older, 35-50, upper-middle class educated professionals.

Squares and Swingers had been smoking cannabis all through the ’50s. By the late 1950s the Beats were the newest and fastest-growing group, mainly under 25 and centred in “the Village” — a two-block section of Gerrard Street.

The Beats read books by counter-culture authors Jack Karouac, Allen Ginsberg (pictured below) and William Burroughs, all of whom wrote about using cannabis and other drugs.

1954 – 1961 Laws & Punishments Intensify

In 1954, Liberal Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent (pictured below) passed yet another anti-drug law, doubling the penalty for trafficking marijuana from seven years to fourteen. The new law also created another offence: “possession for the purpose of trafficking,” which had same penalties as trafficking, and put the onus on the person caught to prove they were not trafficking.

Whipping was still allowed as additional punishment and there was still a six month mandatory minimum for simple possession of either opium or cannabis.

This new law also marked the end of cannabis medicines, some of which had still been available by prescription in the early ’50s.

In 1955, the Canadian Senate formed a Special Committee to examine the growing popularity of cannabis. The Senators held hearings across the country, but mainly listened to RCMP and police officials. Those who called for a social or medical approach to cannabis and opium use were considered naive and misguided.

The Senators were especially impressed with the testimony from Harry Anslinger (pictured below), Commissioner of America’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Anslinger held that position from 1930-1962 and crusaded tirelessly against cannabis.

Police officers told the Senators that a cannabis or opium user is someone “who has no morals, no principles and very seldom tells the truth.” The Senate Committee recommended expanding police powers, increasing penalties for trafficking, and “more aggressive enforcement of the possession offence.”

A new law was soon passed. The 1961 Narcotic Control Act eliminated whipping, but made growing or importing cannabis or opium punishable by up to a lifetime in prison, with a mandatory minimum of seven years behind bars.

This new seven year mandatory minimum for growing or importing any amount of cannabis or opium was the third longest penalty for any crime in Canada, surpassed only by treason and first degree murder.

Dana Larsen is the former (and co-founding) editor of Cannabis Culture Magazine and a pioneering Vancouver marijuana activist. Read more about his groundbreaking work and visit