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The Mystery of Cannabis Criminalization in Canada

Photo by Esteban Lopez

Written by Matteo Miceli

Last month, the Canadian Government legalized cannabis. For many activists, the road to legalization was a hard-fought, decades-long battle. The legalization movement in Canada gained momentum in the 1960s and 1970s with the emergence of the hippie counterculture. Then, for over 50 years, people protested cannabis laws, some even being beaten and jailed for the cause. But now, the drug is legal and, as the dust settles on ninety-five years of prohibition, some are wondering why cannabis was criminalized in the first place. The truth: nobody knows.

Cannabis, more commonly known as marijuana, was first criminalized in 1923 with the passing of the Act to Prohibit the Improper Use of Opium and other Drugs, fourteen years before the USA banned the substance federally. Back then, the drug did not have a presence in Canada. Few Canadians knew what cannabis was and even fewer had tried it. So its addition to the list of controlled substances at that time still puzzles historians.

What’s more, the original draft of the bill did not contain any reference to cannabis. It was on a carbon copy of this document that someone later added the words “Cannabis Indica (Indian Hemp) or Hasheesh.” Whoever made this amendment and why they added it is a mystery. The last-minute addition of cannabis prompted no debate from either the House of Commons or the Senate—and just like that, the bill became law. It is likely that many of the sitting senators and members of parliament at the time were ignorant of the drug and its effects.

A popular theory links the criminalization of cannabis to suffragist Emily F. Murphy’s infamous 1922 book, The Black Candle. Though the book mostly fixates on opium, there is a short chapter about marijuana which essentially claims the drug turns people into murderous maniacs. However, historian and author Catherine Carstairs disagrees with this theory after she found implications in early government records that suggest officials at the division of narcotics control did not take Murphy’s writings very seriously. Carstairs argues that, based on her reputation in the department, it is unlikely cannabis would have been banned on Murphy’s recommendation.

Another theory claims that Col. Sharman, Chief of the Federal Division of Narcotics, was responsible for the addition of cannabis to the list of controlled substances. After returning to Canada from a meeting at the league of nations, Sharman was supposedly inspired to criminalize cannabis in Canada. It’s a believable theory; Sharman was known as a major player in the war on drugs. However, he would not be appointed Chief of the Division of Narcotics until 1927, four years after cannabis had been already criminalized. And, while there would eventually be a worldwide push for the ban of cannabis in the 1930s, there was essentially no global discourse surrounding the drug in 1923.

For nearly a decade after its criminalization, the illicit status of cannabis had little-to-no effect on the Canadian people. That changed in the 1930s when the drug began making its way across the border from the USA. In 1932 police seized cannabis for the first time, and the first arrest for possession was made in 1937. As ‘marijuana’ entered into the collective vocabulary of Canadian society, a moral panic began to spread throughout the nation. Associations were drawn between marijuana and insanity; it was believed that taking the drug turned people violent. This panic led to the introduction of new laws to further regulate cannabis.

Cannabis display at The Vancouver Police Museum

A section of our narcotics display that features cannabis.

Despite the increasing severity of cannabis laws, the drug only became more popular as time went on. By the late sixties, cannabis use in Canada exploded, as did the number of arrests and drug seizures. For the next several years there would be a disconnect between the Canadian Government and its citizens concerning the legal status of cannabis. The legalization movement gained significant support all over Canada, but the Government refused to budge. By 1997, a majority of Canadians (51%) believed that marijuana should be decriminalized. Two more decades would come and go before we finally saw the legalization of marijuana in 2018.

Somewhere there’s a moral argument in all this. After ninety-five years of prohibition, thousands have been imprisoned, charged, and even killed over marijuana. Families have been torn apart and lives changed forever. All the while, the Government itself has been unable to provide a reason for the drug’s criminalization in the first place. It begs the question: was it right for the Canadian Government to enforce the prohibition of cannabis without reason for nearly a hundred years?

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