The History of Marijuana in Canada

Marijuana, or “weed,” refers to the psychoactive drug containing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is derived from the dried leaves and flowers of the Cannabis sativa or Cannabis indica plant. It can be smoked or ingested and is used for both medical and recreational purposes. While parts of the Cannabis plant are used to make Marijuana, it also has a lot of other uses.

One reason that Cannabis is so popular, aside from its variety of uses, is because it is so adaptable and easy to grow, especially as technology in this area develops. It can be grown in the traditional method, outdoors, if you have the appropriate climate, but it can also be grown indoors. Aside from the option of greenhouses which supply natural light, indoor growers can use bright lights. They also need the right soil or another medium such as water (as in a hydroponic system) or even clay pebbles.

Pre-Canadian History of Cannabis

Pre-Canadian History of Cannabis

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Though many think of Marijuana as a negative in modern terms, it has a long and positive ancient history. It has been used all over the world ritually, medicinally, and in the industry for centuries. In fact, over 10,000 years ago there is a record of hemp -more about hemp later- being used to make pottery in Taiwan!

But, let’s start at the beginning. As far back as 700 years BCE, Zoroastrians mentioned Marijuana being used as a narcotic. And its use and popularity continued to spread from there. Early in the first century, Pliny the Elder documented its application as an analgesic and a physician in Nero’s army also referred to the medical benefits of Marijuana. In fact, throughout Greco Roman times Marijuana was used by physicians to treat a variety of illnesses and was thought to be good for digestion, earaches, menstruation, and overall mood improvement.

By the year 300 CE, it was being used in far off places like China and Jerusalem, where it helped as an anesthetic to reduce pain. After being introduced to Europe, it slowly became a staple in medical treatments, as recorded by French physicians Rabelais and Moreau, as well as Irish physician O’Shaughnessy. Even royalty like Queen Victoria was using it for a variety of ailments including headaches, asthma, and menstrual cramps in Europe in the 1800s!

In other places in the world, such as India, it was used in religious ceremonies and festivals. As far back as 430 BCE, Herodotus documented the use of Marijuana by Scythians for both ritual and recreational purposes. The Scythians were understood to have included the seeds of the Marijuana plant in their burial rituals, as later discovered in what is now modern-day Kazakhstan. In fact, it was the Scythians who introduced hemp to the northern Europeans, most likely by way of Germany. It spread to other places as well, with mystic devotees from Syria bringing it to Egypt in 1171. Then by the 1300s, it had spread to the rest of the continent of Africa.

Cannabis also has a long history of being grown throughout the world for its industrial uses. The fiber which can be extracted from the stem of the cannabis plant is incredibly strong and useful. This material is called hemp. People in Greece, Russia, and China were using hemp rope well before the current era, and there are records of this rope being imported to England in the year 100. Even the early Vikings and Italians are documented as having used hemp rope. But hemp is not just good for rope.

In the year 900, the Arabs followed in the footsteps of the Chinese when they learned how to make hemp paper. The use of hemp became so widespread and varied that King Henry VIII is known to have fined farmers who did not grow it in the 1500s. Its use continued to spread, and even now we are finding new applications for it every day, from fabric to fiberboard.

The Legal History of Cannabis in Canada

The Legal History of Cannabis in Canada

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It is unclear when Cannabis arrived in Canada, but historical records show hemp seeds being used by farmers as early as 1801. In 1822 the provincial parliament allocated machinery to make it easier for local hemp farmers to process hemp, so we know it was increasing in popularity at that time. However, history doesn’t lead us to believe Marijuana was being smoked by Canadians at that time. Or, at least, not by many of them.

In the early 1900s, the government cracked down on the use of drugs such as Opium, and for a few short decades Marijuana as a drug was largely ignored. Historians and legalization supporters believe that this is because there was not much awareness of the plant is smoked–it simply was not popular at the time. Which is why no one really understands how it was made illegal in 1923 when it was included in the list of prohibited drugs in the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act. There is very little documentation of the matter even being discussed, but it is believed that Marijuana was not actually a problem in Canada; instead, the country was merely following in the footsteps of other nations who were banning it.

Still, it did not appear that the government was very concerned, even after banning the use of the drug. Cannabis continued to be grown on farms across the country where it was used as a windbreak to protect crops and prevent soil erosion. For the first decade or so of the law, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) did nothing about this, and the first record of police action (a seizure) regarding Cannabis didn’t take place until 1937. Even after that, it seems that the law was only minimally enforced until the 1960s when Marijuana began to be used as a popular drug across the country. It is suspected that Canada again succumbed to international pressure at this point, possibly from the United States, and began to focus more directly on enforcement of the law.

The popularity of the drug had really gained momentum at this point and Marijuana related convictions, which entailed as much as six months in prison and fines as high as $1000, were an increasing problem. So, the Canadian government created The Royal Commision of Inquiry into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs in 1969, also known as the Le Dain Commission, to determine what should be done. The Commission published its recommendations in 1972, with three out of the four authors of the report recommending that the government stop legally penalizing for the possession of the drug. However, they did not outright support legalizing it.

The Fight for Legalization Today

The Fight for Legalization Today

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It appears that these recommendations made by the commission were ignored for decades. But, support of the movement to legalize Marijuana grew during this time and it became a popular issue in 1996 when a man named Terrance Parker was arrested for possession.

Parker, who grew Cannabis to control his epileptic seizures, appealed to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the conversation regarding the medical use of Marijuana really began to take shape. In 2000, an Ontario court ruled that prohibition of Cannabis possession was unconstitutional unless it took into consideration the medical use of the drug, leading to the legalization of medical Marijuana in 2001 through the Marijuana for Medical Access Regulations (MMAR).This legalization allowed physicians to prescribe Marijuana in cases of extreme pain or muscle spasms related to arthritis or problems with the spinal cord or spinal column, in the cases of cancer or HIV/AIDS infection, or to prevent epileptic seizures. Physicians were also allowed to prescribe medical Marijuana as a therapy in end-of-life care.

Then, in 2002, the government created two committees to discuss the non-medical use of Marijuana, both of which recommended the reformation of current laws. At this time, a large percentage of the Canadian population was using Cannabis, either recreationally or medicinally, and public opinion polls showed that the majority of Canadians agreed that its recreational use should not be considered a criminal offense.

In response to these growing trends, the government introduced a bill in 2003 to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of Marijuana (15 grams or less), making it punishable only by fine, but ultimately the bill died, due to pressure from the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (the DEA).

The bill was reintroduced in 2004 but died for the second time and was not reintroduced again. Instead, conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper made several attempts to pass bills which would increase criminalization of Marijuana possession, despite public sentiment. The bills proposed that Marijuana dealers operating in a fashion which suggested organized crime would face a mandatory one-year sentence, and two years if they were caught selling to youth. The maximum penalty for growing Cannabis would increase to a 14-year sentence (up from seven years). The bill was introduced in 2009 and again in 2011 but failed both times.

In 2011, Justice Donald Taliano ruled that the MMAR’s prohibitions were unconstitutional and ordered that the program be fixed immediately, leading to the 2013 implementation of the Marijuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR) program, which created a commercially licensed industry for medical marijuana.

Cannabis Legalized

Cannabis Legalized

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In 2015 Justin Trudeau from the Liberal Party of Canada won the majority vote and was elected Prime Minister. A large and controversial part of the liberal leader’s campaign was his promise to legalize marijuana if he was elected. The possibility of legalization became even more realistic when liberals won the majority of seats in the House of Commons, and soon after his election, Prime Minister Trudeau created the Task Force on Marijuana Legalization and Regulation to determine the best process for legalization.

After consulting representatives from provincial, territorial, and municipal governments, as well as experts in the field of public health, law enforcement, employers, patients, and many other Canadians, the task force released its 106-page report on December 16, 2016. This report informed the Cannabis Act, later created by the Government of Canada, which would legalize the cultivation, purchase, possession, and use of limited amounts of cannabis for adults over 18.

However, this is not a marijuana free-for-all. Under this new legislation, Marijuana for recreational use will be grown by licensed producers and sold only at government approved retailers, starting in July 2018. And, until that time, the current laws surrounding the recreational use of marijuana are being strictly enforced. In fact, since the legislation was put into place, many illegal dispensaries have popped up throughout the country, selling before it is legal to do so, and in March 2017, the RCMP raided five illegal retailers and multiple homes on drug-related charges.

Why did the Government of Canada legalize Marijuana?

Why did the Government of Canada legalize Marijuana?

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Though many would like to think that the liberal position taken by the current governing party reflects an approval of recreational marijuana use, this is not the official stance being taken. Instead, the government states that the historical position of prohibition is simply not working; marijuana is still being bought and used in increasing numbers.

The government points to its desire to protect the health and safety of citizens who are currently purchasing illegal, and therefore unregulated, cannabis at very high rates. The government especially noted their desire to keep cannabis out of the hands of youth and for that reason included in their legislation specific prohibitions against selling to youth as well as selling, packaging, or advertising cannabis products that are aimed at youth. They are also investing millions of dollars in public education surrounding the health and safety risks of cannabis use. Finally, Canada emphasized the legal reasons behind the decision, acknowledging the expense of ever-growing criminal prosecutions, and expressed their desire to interrupt the highly profitable and organized system of crime surrounding the sale of cannabis.

What does this new legislation allow?

What does this new legislation allow?

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Once the legislation goes into effect in July 2018, adults over the age of 18 will be able to: purchase fresh or dried cannabis, cannabis oil, and plants and seeds for cultivation at home. They can possess and share up to 30 grams of dried legal cannabis with other adults; cultivate up to four plants in their home, and use legally purchased or homegrown cannabis to create edibles at home.

Though adults can create their own edibles, the initial legislation does not include regulations for edible products and cannabis concentrates, and their sale remains strictly prohibited. The government plans to release guidelines which would allow for the sale of these products as soon as they have finished researching the best regulatory controls, which they have stated will be within 12 months of the July 2018 date.

The Future of Cannabis in Canada

Though there have been many hurdles to jump over, the Government of Canada continues to express that they expect the new laws to come into force on July 1, 2018. This will be a big win for Canadian citizens, the majority of whom have been pushing for legalization (or at the very least, decriminalization) for decades. We can only hope the road from here is smoother.

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