The History of Cannabis in Canada – Part 1: A Crucial World Commodity

CANNABIS CULTURE – The history of Canada is deeply intertwined with the story of cannabis. This most wonderful of plants has shaped our country in many important ways.

From the earliest days of our nation’s history, cannabis has been a central engine of our economy and a key to political success. The story of cannabis in Canada is one of controversy, conflict and the quest for power.

Canada’s First Cannabis Crop

Canada’s first cannabis crop was planted in 1606 by Louis Hebert, a successful Parisian botanist and apothecary who was a friend of explorer Samuel de Champlain. Hebert had emigrated to Port Royal (now Nova Scotia) with his wife and children, bringing his extensive knowledge of herbs and medicines with him to the new world.

Cannabis was a crucial world commodity at the time. Cannabis seeds and flowers were used across Europe and Asia as food and medicine, but most of the cannabis grown in Europe was used to make the ropes and sails required by all navy and merchant ships.

A Food, Fuel, Fibre and Medicine

By this time, cannabis had already been grown by humans for thousands of years as a source of food, fuel, fibre and medicine.

Cannabis seeds are rich in protein and essential fatty acids, an excellent food source for humans and livestock. Cannabis seed oil can also be burned as a fuel for lamps and engines.

Cannabis stalk is a source of fibre and pulp. The stalk’s strong outer bast fibres are used to make textiles like rope, sails and clothing. The inner pulpy hurds were traditionally disposed as a waste product, but after the invention of the decorticator in the early 1900s, the hurds became a valuable source material to make everything from plastics to paper to dynamite.

Cannabis is dioecious which means it has male and female plants.

The flower clusters of female plants are covered in tiny resinous glands called trichomes. These glands are rich in cannabinoids with many medicinal uses and have names like cannabidiol (CBD), cannabinol (CBN) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

When these trichomes are separated from the plant and pressed together, the product is called hashish.

Male plants don’t produce floral clusters, they grow small sacks which release pollen to fertilize the females. 

Cannabis can also be hermaphroditic, with male and female flowers on the same plant.

Growing Cannabis

When grown for pulp and fibre, cannabis is usually grown close together, which encourages it to grow tall with few branches. Hermaphrodite varieties are often used to ensure the plants are uniform height. The crop is usually harvested before the plants go to flower, so few resinous trichomes are produced.

When growing for seed or flowers, shorter, bushier varieties of cannabis are grown. Females produce dense, resinous floral clusters which become laden with seeds once fertilized by the taller male plants.

When the male plants are culled, the females will produce buds of floral clusters with no seeds. This is called sensimilla –meaning “without seeds” – and is the standard for all commercial marijuana today.

Scientifically, all cannabis is the same species: C. Sativa L. Biologists continue to debate the number and names of various cannabis subspecies, but the standard division is usually into Cannabis sativa sativa, Cannabis sativa indica and Cannabis sativa ruderalis. 

Indica: 4 to 9 feet tall. Bushy structure, broad leaves, shorter flowering cycle. Large, dense buds. Main commercial use is for seed oil. From more northern regions. Almost all smoked bud in Canada comes from Indica strains. 

Sativa: 12 to 18 feet tall. Tree-like structure, thinner leaves, longer flowering cycle. Long, wispy buds. From more equatorial regions. Main commercial use is for pulp and fibre. 

Ruderalis: Wild cannabis, 2 to 4 feet tall. Very short flowering cycle. Not used commercially.

International Demand for Hemp

In the 1600s, huge amounts of cannabis textiles were needed by all of Europe’s naval powers to outfit their warships and merchant fleets. Unable to meet their own demand, European monarchs looked abroad. Britain bought large quantities of cannabis for sails and ropes from Russia, while the Dutch imported cannabis from the East Indies.

Colonies in the New World were a promising source of new cannabis farms and mills. Tracts of land were issued to settlers who promised to grow large amounts of cannabis for fibre.

By the mid 1600s, Spain was growing cannabis in Chile, New England was growing cannabis for Britain, and the French Royal Warehouses promised to buy all the cannabis that Canadian farmers could grow.

A Valuable Crop

To encourage more cannabis farming in the New World, the French and British governments offered bonuses and distributed cannabis hemp seed to settlers. Some taxes could be paid with hemp stalks, and farmers who didn’t grow enough of it were punished.

The name of many towns and regions that still exist today were originally derived from this main crop, producing Hemphills, Hempstead, Hampshires and Hemptons.

Cannabis was a valuable crop, but it took a lot of physical labour to prepare it for use. The long outer fibers of the cannabis plant stalk need to be separated from the inner pulpy hurds. This process was very time-consuming and labour-intensive. Settlers preferred to grow food crops so they wouldn’t starve.

Both the French and British governments did everything they could to push early Canadian farmers into growing more cannabis for textiles. Settlers preferred growing food crops so they could eat instead of a cash crop like cannabis.

In 1668, Jean Talon, administrator of Quebec, confiscated all the thread from the shops in the colony, and declared he would sell it only in return for cannabis hemp. Without thread, colonists couldn’t make or repair their clothes, and so they were forced to grow more cannabis fibre.

Britain took control of Canada in 1763, while the empire was in serious need of more cannabis hemp. In 1790, Britain sent 2000 bushels of Russian cannabis seed to Quebec and offered it for free to farmers across the province. Only 15 farmers accepted any, the rest of it went to rot.

In 1800, the British Parliament sent two cannabis experts to Canada, James Campbell and Charles Frederick Grece, promising them free land and great wealth if they could convince the settlers to grow more cannabis and teach them to do it well. Both experts failed miserably, through a combination of bad seed, poor weather and spring floods.

Board for the Encouragement of the Cultivation of Hemp

The British government didn’t give up; they were desperate to get more cannabis growing in Canada. They needed hemp rope and sails to keep their mighty navy afloat.

In 1802, Canada appointed several prominent farmers to the newly-formed Board for the Encouragement of the Cultivation of Hemp.

Newspapers of the time encouraged farmers to grow more hemp, and government reports show how officials pushed to increase hemp production:

The cultivation of hemp is rapidly expanding in Canada, and there is much reason to hope we shall be rendered independent of the foreign markets. Several hundred tons were grown last year in the neighbourhood of Montreal, Camden, Howard on the Thames, and in many parts of Upper-Canada; and we hear with great pleasure that upwards of twenty looms and rope-walks were established during that period.

– British Government Report on Hemp, 1809

Hemp is likely to be supplied in abundance in a short time from Ireland as well as from Canada, where thousands of acres are now allotted to its cultivation … It is thought that our dependence of Russia for this article has nearly, if not completely, reached its termination. The very high price which hemp bears at this moment operates as a powerful inducement to our national agriculturalists.

– National and Parliamentary Notices, March 1809.

Hemp and The War of 1812

For centuries, Russia was the world’s largest producer of cannabis textiles. Despite Canada’s growing number of cannabis farms and mills, in the early 1800s Britain’s mighty navy was still mainly dependent on Russian-made cannabis rope and sails.

As Napoleon rose to power in France, Britain blockaded Europe with its superior navy, cutting the whole Continent off from Atlantic trade in 1806 by controlling the English Channel and the Straits of Gibraltar.

Unable to win at sea, Napoleon tried to beat Britain’s navy by banning all European trade with Britain, and pressured Russia to cut off Britain’s cannabis supply and isolate them economically.

To get around the trade ban, Britain began capturing American ships, forcing them to buy Russian hemp rigging and deliver it to England.

After a few years, Russia decided to stop abiding by the embargo because the cannabis industry was too important to their economy. Napoleon needed to stop Britain’s navy from getting their cannabis sails and ropes, so he launched his disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812.

America’s navy was built on domestically grown cannabis processed by slave labour. Annoyed by Britain’s blockade of Europe and seeing an opportunity to expand their territory, the United States declared war on Britain and tried to invade Canada in 1812, which was still scaling up cannabis production to meet British demand.

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

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