The cannabis plant has a long and complicated history. It’s been both honoured as an herbal medicine and in religious ceremonies — and outlawed as an illegal substance. This three-part series explores the lows and highs on the long journey toward cannabis legalization in Canada.
Cannabis Prohibition Arrives
In 1923, cannabis is banned in Canada under Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. Historical records do not explain why, but it’s assumed that because opium and cocaine have already been made illegal, cannabis is added to the roster without much debate. In 1937, the U.S. passes its own act that bans recreational cannabis.
Recreational Cannabis Use — and Convictions — Surge in Canada
Despite the Canadian government ratifying the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1961, cannabis use and convictions are on the rise in the 1960s. The number of cannabis convictions in Canada rise from 25 between 1930 and 1946 to 2,300 in 1968 alone.
Pro-Cannabis Protestors Peacefully Assemble in Vancouver
The first pro-cannabis-legalization rally in Canada is held in Vancouver. Though it was a peaceful rally, the hundreds of cannabis-smoking protestors on Water Street are forcefully dispersed by police in riot gear and on horseback. The event comes to be known as the Gastown Riot or the Battle of Maple Tree Square.
A New Commission Recommends Decriminalization
Enforcement of cannabis laws is difficult. Beginning in 1969, the Royal Commission of Inquiry on the Non-Medical Use of Drugs, also known as the Le Dain Commission, is mandated to look at the government’s role in regulating the use and distribution of drugs. After years of consulting experts, conducting research and holding public hearings across the country, the commission recommends removing criminal penalties for cannabis use and possession but not making cannabis legal; essentially, decriminalizing the use of cannabis.
In 1979, under the leadership of then-prime minister Joe Clark, the Progressive Conservative government announces that it intends to reform the Criminal Code provisions regarding cannabis. Before they could implement any changes, the Conservatives were defeated.
Read Part 3: Getting closer and closer to legalization.