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A history of cannabis prohibition in Canada

By Emma Spears

In line with modern prohibition and restrictive drug legislation, the Great White North’s original drug laws were rooted in bigotry and disproportionately affected Indigenous, Black, Asian, Latinx and vulnerable communities.


Canada’s first foray into prohibition was largely driven by the anti-Chinese racism that had become rampant in British Columbia during the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, when an influx of Chinese immigrants settled in and around Vancouver.


The Opium and Drug Act of 1908 rendered it illegal for Canadians to sell, manufacture, or import opiates and cocaine for non-medical use. The law targeted Chinese Canadians, who bore the brunt of the arrests and ensuing legal penalties.


The ensuing moral panic over illegal drug use spread east across the country, and alarmist, early “war on drugs”-type media began to proliferate, creating the foundations of a social stigma around drug users.


Tomes such as The Black Candle, penned by suffragist and first female magistrate Emily Murphy,perfectlyencapsulate the Canadian public’s perception of race and drug use at the time.


Notably, it also categorically defined addiction as a legal issue as opposed to a public health concern. With the 1922 publication of the book, Murphy aimed to inspire the public to demand the implementation of stricter drug laws. Her hopes would soon come to fruition.


The1908 Act laid the groundwork for future legislation prohibiting other drugs, with cannabis becoming a scheduled substance in 1923 when drug legislation was consolidated into the Act to Prohibit the Improper Use of Opium and other Drugs. There is no evidence that the Act was ever discussed or debated in Parliament.


The Opium and Narcotic Act followed in 1929, establishing strict penalties for those caught consuming, possessing or selling illegal substances. The legislation would be the foundation of Canada’s drug policy for the next 40 years.


At the dawn of the psychedelic 60s, recreational drug use became an increasingly influential part of youth culture. Enter the 1961 Narcotic Control Act, which rendered the possession of cannabis (and various other drugs) an indictable offence and doubled the penalty for trafficking from seven to 14 years.


The Act also implemented elements of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, an international treatyof which Canada was a signatory and which would later be supplemented with further legislation controlling activities related to psychotropic substances such as MDMA and LSD.


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