A Blunt History of Cannabis Prohibition (Part II)


“I must say, this commission that you’ve set up . . . I don’t know what’s going on in the rest of the world, you know, in reality, towards drugs, but this seems to be the only one that is trying to find out what it’s about with any kind of sanity […] This is the opportunity for Canada to lead the world.”

  • John Lennon, Le Dain Commission Testimony, 1969

For Canadian cannabis users, the 1970s started with a bang.

Or more specifically, a bang, a smash, the clatter of horses’ hooves, and a hell of a lot of screaming. In the summer of 1971, close to 2000 people assembled in Vancouver’s Gastown neighbourhood to take part in the “Grasstown Smoke-In”, a parade and jamboree in favour of marijuana legalization. The protest had been publicized in the pages of the Georgia Straight (then an anti-establishment weekly with nary a condo ad in its pages), and was organized as a response to “Operation Dustpan”, a police initiative championed by then-mayor Tom Campbell that had resulted in the arrest of more than 100 people in a 10-day span – all of them for drug possession. The event began peacefully enough; the organizers — predominantly young people involved in the city’s budding counterculture movement – brought along musical instruments and handed out creamsicles. Students from nearby Langara Community College arrived with a 10-foot joint.

The Gastown Riot, 1971. Image Courtesy of the Vancouver Sun.
The Gastown Riot, 1971. Image Courtesy of the Vancouver Sun.

But then, something went wrong.

Police officers, on horseback and armed with riot sticks, charged into the crowd without provocation, swinging indiscriminately at protestors and bystanders alike. In one instance, an officer struck a girl in a wheelchair. Another cop dragged a young woman across half a block of broken glass by her hair. By the time it was over, 12 people were hospitalized, 79 were arrested, and the city was in an uproar.

“The solution to a traffic tie-up was to break open heads,” Vancouver Sun columnist Allan Fotheringham wrote, later that week. “The mayor kept predicting a riot, it never came, so the police supplied him with one. If someone isn’t sacked over this one, we live in a rather unpleasant town. Pigs is a dirty word, and no one likes to use it, but there were some pigs loose in Gastown on Saturday night.”

John Lennon and Yoko Ono with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau,
John Lennon and Yoko Ono with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, 1969. While on a visit to Canada, Lennon spoke to the Le Dain Commission on the merits of marijuana legalization. Image Courtesy of the Canadian Press.

Ultimately, not a single officer was disciplined for their part in the incident. And while the general public was on the side of the protestors, when it came to the issue of marijuana generally, Canada was a nation bitterly divided. In 1961, Canada had adopted the Narcotic Control Act, one of the harshest drug prohibition laws in the Western world, which required sentences of up to 7 years for possession, and up to life imprisonment for trafficking. Depictions of drug use in films were banned (in 1968, police raided Toronto’s Cinecity Theatre and halted a screening of Larry Kent’s film “High”, suspending the license of both the theatre and the projectionist). Nationwide, cannabis arrests had jumped from the double into the triple digits (431 by 1967). But at the same time, talk of legalization had also begun to spread across the country – not just in counterculture circles, but on college campuses, and even in the halls of government. In 1969, a pro-legalization petition signed by 5500 students and professors at the University of Toronto and York University was delivered to Ottawa. 16 universities countrywide held referendums approving legalized marijuana on their campuses. Starting in the early 1970s, Ottawa began growing its own cannabis, and conducted a series of experiments (the results of which are still not public) to test its effect on the human body. And beginning in 1969, a federal commission chaired by future Supreme Court Justice Gerald Le Dain was convened to examine the effect of non-medical drugs in Canada. The Commission’s report, released in 1973 after months of hearings and testimony (including from former Beatle John Lennon), recommended the repeal of cannabis prohibition, noting that the sentences being handed down weren’t justified by any evidence of actual harm.

The Le Dain Commission was national news, and even appeared in the pages of TIME Magazine.

Gerald Le Dain. Image Courtesy of the Supreme Court of Canada.
Gerald Le Dain. Image Courtesy of the Supreme Court of Canada.

Then-Health Minister John Munro (who had commissioned it in the first place) went so far as to announce that he would move cannabis from the Criminal Code into the Food and Drug Act. However, in the end, the Trudeau government ignored the report, and in the ensuing years, arrests continued to climb; 50,177 people were charged in 1978 alone, and by 1979, cannabis possession accounted for 73% of all drug arrests. In cities like Vancouver, pro-legalization figures like the Georgia Straight’s Dan McLeod faced arrest, harassment, and the suspension of their business license. And Canada wasn’t alone. By now, the UN and most western nations had adopted harsh drug prohibition laws, with increasingly punitive sentences for possession and trafficking. In 1986, Ronald Reagan stepped up the US’ War on Drugs, and in 1987, Brian Mulroney established a 5-year National Drug Strategy. Ironically, cannabis use hit an all-time high at around the same time, and then began to slowly decline as the 1980s turned into the 1990s.

But change was already in the air.

It was subtle at first; in 1995, another legalization rally took place, just blocks from the site of the “Grasstown Smoke-In” — this time at Vancouver’s Victory Square Park, in what would be the first 4/20 celebration in North America. This time, there were no injuries. No broken bones. Not even an arrest. The rally was organized by employees at Marc Emery’s HempBC store — located just across the street. Emery, along with activists like Dana Larsen and Hilary Black, were on the forefront of a new movement championing the cause of legal cannabis, through the BC Marijuana Party and publications like Cannabis Culture. Then, in 1997, Canada made marijuana a Schedule II substance — reducing the penalties incurred for possession – and in 1999, following the trail blazed by several US states, legalized cannabis for medical purposes. A 2002 House of Commons report concluded that the prohibition of marijuana had been an utter failure, recommending decriminalization of the substance, while a separate Senate commission advocated for full legalization. A federal Justice Department study also concluded that the majority of cannabis grow ops weren’t linked to organized crime or violence. And finally, in 2015, 92 years after its prohibition, and 42 years after the Le Dain Commission’s report, a different Trudeau government decided to take another look at legalization.

And this time, the arguments of generations past went up in smoke.

Jesse Donaldson is a Vancouver journalist whose work has appeared in VICE, The Tyee, the Calgary Herald, the WestEnder, and several others. His first book, THIS DAY IN VANCOUVER (2013), was shortlisted for a BC Book Prize.

This is part two of our three-part series on the history of cannabis prohibition in Canada.  To read part three click here.  To receive email updates sign up for our mailing list here

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