How reefer madness got its start in Canada before plaguing the U.S.

The well-known American panic over cannabis can be traced across the border.

Dec 24, 2017

Two years ago, then-Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated that marijuana is ‘infinitely worse’ than tobacco. It felt like an audacious thing to say back in 2015, nevermind that in 2017 we’re that much closer to legalizing that supposedly infinitely worse thing.

But Canadians in a panic about wacky tobaccy isn’t recent, even if it is a dying craze. Canada actually has a long-standing tradition of being hyperbolic about pot, adopting “reefer madness” before even its neighbors in the United States. In fact, reefer madness is a tradition born out of, what else, a seething hatred of minorities.

Canada adopted “reefer madness” before even the United States.

I don’t know if this will make Canadians feel better or worse, but media columnists with questionable stances are not a recent phenomenon. Emily Murphy, a suffragist who fought to have women recognized as ‘persons’ and became the first female magistrate in Canada, left herself with an unfortunately mixed legacy. Even her Heritage Minute, part of a series of films in Canada recognizing significant people, mentions that she was a “pioneer in the war against narcotics,” greatly downplaying her role in the bigoted reefer madness.

It all began at the turn of the century when police in Vancouver were struggling to combat opium dens. While middle-class white Canadians were still the primary users, Chinese immigrants were far more scrutinized. These immigrants were used for cheap labor throughout the late 1800s, giving the unemployed fuel to dislike them. After protests against Asian Canadians in 1907, William Lyon Mackenzie King (then a deputy minister of labor) traveled to Vancouver to speak with opium merchants himself.

6347746887 1a315a2f11 o Why California is important for ending marijuana prohibition in the U.S.
Photo via Flickr/Library and Archives Canada

King was concerned with preventing more caucasian users of opium. In 1908, Canada passed the Opium Act. While it outlawed selling or possessing opium, it did not make it an imprisonable offense. But those laws would grow into reefer madness, expanding to cannabis and cocaine by the 1920s and even adding a seven-year prison sentence. A lot of this culminated in the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, which banned most forms of immigration and wasn’t completely dismissed until 1967.

Racialized drug persecution was in vogue, and Murphy gladly lent her reputation to the cause. The reefer madness panic hadn’t really gone beyond the West Coast where usage was most obvious, but then the fear became syndicated by a series of exposes commissioned by Maclean’s from Murphy about the Canadian drug crisis. She wrote them under the pseudonym ‘Janey Canuck,’ but she formally stamped her name on them when the articles were expanded into a book in 1922.

This book, “The Black Candle,” would probably be labeled as conspiracy drivel by today’s standards, but in the 1920s it was a national bestseller. In it, Murphy details how a war was being waged on the Western world through narcotics. The reefer madness was all being orchestrated, she said, by immigrants and minorities (Chinese, Mexicans, African-Americans, Jews, Greeks, you name it). This cabal of drug pushers was, according to Murphy, known as “The Ring,” which sounds more like an outfit that would take on the Justice League than imported cannabis into Edmonton. The evidence was anecdotal at best, like Vancouver’s opium dens being expanded into global pandemic proportions.

“The Black Candle” would probably be labeled as conspiracy drivel today, but in the 1920s it was a reefer madness national bestseller.

“There is, a well-defined propaganda among the aliens of colour to bring about the degeneration of the white race,” wrote Murphy.

It is unfortunate that a member of Canada’s Famous Five had such an insidious racist edge and significant role in reefer madness. Defenders have stated that anti-drug propaganda wasn’t as big of a priority to her as her legacy may suggest and that her racism was just indicative of her time. But Murphy felt her drug crusade was important enough to nominate herself for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1923.

As Canada nears its legalization of marijuana, the reefer madness of recent history will seem more antiquated. But tomorrow’s smokers shouldn’t forget that our longstanding history of racism can’t be divorced from the war on drugs, especially when justice seems so much further away than convenient weed.

Dec 24, 2017