A Blunt History of Cannabis Prohibition (Part III)



“The prohibition of cannabis does not bring about the desired reduction in cannabis consumption or problem use. However, this approach does have a whole series of harmful consequences. Users are marginalized and over 20,000 Canadians are arrested each year for cannabis possession. Young people in schools no longer enjoy the same constitutional and civil protection of their rights as others. Organized crime benefits from prohibition and the criminalization of cannabis enhances their power and wealth. It is a well-known fact that society will never be able to stamp out drug use – particularly cannabis use.”

  • Report of the Canadian Senate Special Committee On Illegal Drugs, 2002


In the years immediately following the Le Dain Commission, talk of cannabis legalization was all smoke and no fire.

Marijuana itself had remained a staple of the counterculture, but it wasn’t until the early 1990s that conversations about legality sparked up again — this time at a distinctly grassroots level. And this time, BC – which was largely responsible for the push toward prohibition in the early 20th Century – was leading the charge in the opposite direction. By the ‘90s, a new generation of activists had emerged, including Cannabis Culture’s Marc Emery, and Dana Larsen of Sensible BC. In 1997, Hilary Black, Bill Small, and Jill Fanthorp founded the BC

Revellers in Ottawa on Cannabis Day, 2016. Photo by Chris Roussakis/AFP/Getty.

Compassion Society, North America’s first medicinal cannabis dispensary, which spent decades operating on the fringes of the law. But around the same time, legal views on marijuana were also changing; in the US, several states had already legalized medicinal cannabis, starting with California in 1996. Canada quickly followed suit, making medical marijuana legal in 1999 — a decision that was followed by several court cases that changed the country’s legal landscape. In the year 2000, R v Parker essentially ruled that cannabis prohibition was unconstitutional, after the Ontario Court of Appeal overturned the conviction of Terry Parker, a man charged with growing medical marijuana to control his seizures. Shortly thereafter, Canada created the “Marihuana Medical Access Regulations”, and subsequently licensed an authorized supplier, Prairie Plant Systems, to provide medical marijuana for Canadians on a case-by-case basis. At the time, the service was mail-order in nature, and provided no opportunity for medical consultation.

But during the Harper years, the divide between medical and recreational use remained a wide one. At the same time as Ottawa was developing its medical marijuana program, the Safe Streets and Communities Act was still pushing mandatory minimum sentences for some cannabis offenses. During the early 2000s, cannabis possession still made up the bulk of drug arrests nationwide, and in BC between 2005 and 2011, cannabis possession arrests actually doubled. Concurrently, cities like Vancouver and Victoria became home to a robust black market, with councils opting to license the increasing number of storefronts rather than stepping up raids. There were some legislative changes in the interim; in 2014, it became easier for patients to access medical marijuana, and in 2016, the Supreme Court ruled that patients could grow their own plants under certain conditions.

Then came the election of Justin Trudeau.

A mediocre Photoshop image of Justin Trudeau with a joint. Image Courtesy of MTLblog.ca

By all accounts, talk of legalization was – at least in part — responsible for the spike in turnout amongst young voters (up by a whopping 18%) during the 2015 election. Within months of the Liberal Party taking power, a task force was established to study the issue, and in December of 2016, they submitted their final report, recommending legalization within a strict regulatory framework. When the bill was first introduced in April of 2017, MPs projected that it would take effect by the following summer, and it was ultimately sent to the Senate by an overwhelming majority of 200-82.

However, that’s when things got complicated. By the time C-45 reached the Senate level, in November of 2017, a number of Conservative Senators were already discussing ways to delay its passage, citing a number of concerns about everything from health and safety to international trade. While the Liberals’ July 2018 deadline was decried by opponents as too ambitious, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau remained firm – at least, for awhile.

“We’re going to continue to move forward,” he told reporters. “We’re going to bring in legalization as we’ve committed to this summer on schedule.”

Image Courtesy of marapharm.tv

But it was already apparent that the original schedule was unworkable. By March of 2018, the bill had been sent to five different Senate committees – unusual for a piece of legislation – including Aboriginal Peoples, Legal And Constitutional Affairs, National Security, and Foreign Affairs and International Trade. The Aboriginal Peoples committee in particular raised concerns about the drug’s effect on their communities, and suggested an additional year to study the issue. There was even some concern that C-45 might die in the Senate. However, the legislation had found an unlikely champion in independent senator Tony Dean — himself not a cannabis user — who initially sponsored the bill, and spent the next five months working tirelessly through debates, delays, and amendments, even carrying scores of articles and studies around in his shoulder bag in case other senators required additional information. In the end, the vote was 44-29 in favour, and in May, the bill returned to the House of Commons — albeit with some 40 amendments, including one which would allow Premiers to ban home-growing within their province. This amendment in particular caused some friction between the Senate and the House; Trudeau and the Liberals refused to implement several – including the home-growing ban – and Senators were ultimately forced to choose between sticking to their guns, or deferring to the will of MPs. But despite a last-minute push by Conservative Senator Claude Carignan, the bill was ultimately approved and, on June 19 of 2018, 95 years after it was first banned, MPs voted to (puff-puff)-pass the first federal cannabis legalization laws in North America.

Where things go from here is still being — and will continue to be — debated by politicians and academics nationwide. But one thing is clear: cannabis legislation in Canada has now entered a new era — far from the lawless patent medicine days, but also moving away from the reactionary racism and moral panics of the midcentury. Cannabis, which writers like Emily Murphy once warned would lead to a “prolonged attack of furious mania, ending in exhaustion or even death”, seems to have achieved some measure of legal and social acceptance. In fact, in 2010, nearly 100 years after The Black Candle, MacLean’s published an article reflecting on the magazine’s “secret shame”, and its complicity in stoking the flames of moral and racial outrage.

“It may be timely to observe that new laws are normally midwived by terrors such as these,” wrote columnist Colby Cosh, “and that, in general, we have to live with those laws long after the terrors are dispersed and forgotten.”

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 the 3rd and final entry in our 3-part series on the history of cannabis prohibition in Canada.  To head back to part 1 click here.