How did Canada, of all places, become the first major country to legalize weed? We take a look back at history with a Canada legalization timeline.
Michelle Rainey-Fenkarek, who has been diagnosed with Crohns disease, smokes marijuana for medicinal purposes on August 10, 2001 in Vancouver, Canada. Rainey-Fenkarek is the deputy financial agent for the BC Marijuana Party and assistant to Marc Emery, the party”s leader in British Columbia. (Photo by Kim Stallknecht/Getty Images)
Canada’s history with weed is long, complicated and, quite frankly, not well documented. This makes total sense when you consider that it’s been illegal for nearly 100 years and it’s not wise to keep a record if you’re planning on breaking the law. Still, there are quite a few major events that could be considered milestones in Canada’s weed history.
According to the Canadian Senate Library’s website, cannabis has a long and mysterious history in Canada which may well have started before Europeans ever set foot there.
Archeologists have found resin in pipes that date back at least 500 years which contained “traces of hemp and tobacco that is five times stronger than the cigarettes smoked today.”
At the same time, other experts in the history of pre-colonial North America believe that cannabis played a very small role, if any, in the lives of Native Americans.
In any case, there was once a time when cannabis was not only legal in Canada but encouraged. With hemp used by the British navy for rope and sails, farmers were encouraged to grow it and even given free seeds by the government in 1801. Meanwhile, hemp’s psychoactive cousin was used as medicine, prescribed by doctors for pain relief and sold in drug stores well into the late 1800s.
The origins of prohibition in Canada are widely unknown. Many believe that Canada was simply following the lead of the US, which banned cannabis in 1937 under the Marijuana Tax Law. But by all accounts, cannabis was banned in Canada in 1923 and some believe it was the result of racist immigration policies.
Years before cannabis was banned, the government was targetting opium dens. Blaming immigrants from China—where, ironically, the British introduced mass opium consumption—the fear was that white folk, and white women, in particular, might get into the habit of smoking opium. As a result, the government passed the Opium Act of 1908, outlawing the substance.
This was what many believe— yet none have confirmed—was the catalyst for cannabis prohibition. A book called The Black Candle is cited by some historians as a possible inspiration for the banning of cannabis in Canada as its author, Emily Murphy, villainized the plant as a corrupting force for women. After it was published, cannabis was added to the list of banned substances as part of the Opium and Narcotics Act in 1923.
Despite this newly-discovered crime, however, only 25 cannabis-related convictions were recorded from prohibition to 1946.
Arrests didn’t pick up until recreational use grew in the 1960s as the counterculture adopted weed as their drug of choice. That’s when the police began to incarcerate users en masse, with 2,300 arrests recorded in 1968 alone. By 1972, that number jumped to 12,000.
These arrests were accompanied by protests to legalize and Vancouver, British Columbia became a major hub for the counterculture and legalization movements.
On August 7, 1971, a riot broke out when police got involved with a peaceful protest on Water Street in Vancouver.
The Gastown neighborhood—a working-class area in decline—had been experiencing an influx of residents from the counterculture who had come to occupy the abandoned parts of town. These newcomers were seen by local authorities as scumbag hippies. Among these authorities was Vancouver’s Mayor Tom Campbell, who sought to crack down on drug use and squatting within the community.
But mostly he feared the more organized countercultural elements like the Youth International Party, otherwise known as Vancouver Yippies, a youth-focused political group that arose out of the anti-war counterculture movement of the 60s. Accompanying the Yippies and spreading their message was a counterculture rag called the Georgia Straight.
Together the Yippies and Georgia Straight organized and promoted ‘smoke-ins,’ or protests at which cannabis was consumed in protest. As police got involved in the August 7 sit in, they used batons and horse charges to break up the crowd of unarmed civilians. Out of around 2,000 protestors, 79 were arrested.
In the aftermath of the event, the police were found by the courts to have used unnecessary force and the event was largely considered a “police riot.”
While protests and sit-ins were being held, the government ordered an official investigation into the legal status of cannabis in 1969 known as the Le Dain Commission, named for the minister in charge of the investigation.
In Canada, the government has the power to order Royal Commissions to investigate and provide recommendations to the government on how to proceed when it comes to certain laws. But much like the Queen, these Royal Commissions have no real power other than to suggest things that might sound like a good idea.
As luck would have it, in 1972, the commission recommended that cannabis be decriminalized after hearing nearly 12,000 testimonies, including one from John Lennon of the Beatles who testified on December 22, 1969 in Montreal, Quebec.
As happens with commissions, though, its conclusions were largely ignored, coincidentally, by the government of Pierre Elliot Trudeau, the father of the Prime Minister who would one day legalize it.
By the 1990s, public opinion had shifted drastically in favor of legalization—at least as far as medical cannabis was concerned. Roughly 80 percent of Canadians voiced their support for it in national polls.
It was the perfect time for someone like Terrence Parker to come onto the scene. Parker had been an epilepsy patient who had undergone multiple, allegedly involuntary, brain surgeries as a teenager to cure his illness.
Cannabis, according to his doctor, was the only thing that worked for Parker, but in 1987 he was arrested for possession and cultivation. His lawyers suggested something which set Canada on the path to legalization: they would challenge his arrest on the basis of a violation of his Charter Rights.
His case made its way through the system to the Ontario Court of Appeals, where in 2000 the court ruled in his favor.
As part of the ruling, Justice Mark Rosenberg wrote that, “forcing Parker to choose between his health and imprisonment violates his right to liberty and security of the person.”
Despite the decision, it was still illegal for Parker and others like him to purchase their medicine. So in 2001, lawmakers passed the Marihuana Medical Access Regulations which allowed for medical patients to be licensed to grow their own cannabis or to obtain cannabis from a designated grower.
This, and a subsequent law which allowed patients to receive their medicine by mail, opened up a grey area in the law which allowed dispensaries to emerge.
Like angsty teens who are on the cusp of adulthood, Canada’s politicians were rather confused after the legalization of medical cannabis and several forces tried to push it in one direction or another.
In the interim years, multiple attempts were made to legalize the recreational sale and possession of cannabis, but none of the bills that were proposed ever made it to a vote in parliament. The first, proposed by Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, was withdrawn due to pressure from the US. The second attempt, by his successor Paul Martin, was also withdrawn as an election year loomed.
In 2012, the Conservative government of Stephen Harper took the country several steps backward, passing a massive crime bill which—among other things—increased the mandatory minimum prison sentence for the trafficking of substances like cannabis from seven to 14 years.
In addition to this, the Harper government also changed the medical cannabis regulations to require medical patients to register to obtain their flower from Licensed Producers (LPs).
This decision created the giants in the industry that we know today like Aurora and Canopy, but it wouldn’t last long as a challenge to the restrictions in the Supreme Court reversed the government’s LP requirements, allowing medical patients to grow their own once again.
Previous failed attempts at legalization made some Canadians skeptical when Justin Trudeau promised legalization as part of his campaign platform in 2015. But after taking office, the new Prime Minister announced that the government would take the promise seriously, pledging that cannabis would be legal by the summer of 2018. In the following months, the government scheduled several hearings and studies, eventually introducing bill C-45.
It should be noted that dispensary raids continued as the federal and provincial governments worked out their individual regulations for legalization. In fact, police operations against black market distributors actually ramped up after the announcement of legalization with raids across the country.
In the summer of 2016, the Toronto Police launched the largest mobilization of law enforcement officers in Canadian weed history for dispensary raid operations dubbed “Project Claudia,” shuttering 43 shops and filing more than 200 charges.
As debates and police raids raged on, the Canada legalization timeline was set for July 1, 2018. But delays in Senate hearings and revisions made to the bill in parliament pushed the date back to October 17, 2018. (Let’s face it, there’s no way Trudeau was going to allow Canada Day—July 1—to become a national holiday for weed.)
And so, Canada, we’ve come full circle to legal weed and even a government dealer for some. The next chapters are up to us to write. It’s been fun dodging the law for nearly 100 years, but let’s promise never to do it again.