This year, Canada became the second country in the world to fully legalize cannabis. But reaching this progressive state was a long process, taking almost a century from the 1923 prohibition until today. So how the hell did Canada get here?
Cannabis use since the dawn of time
Marijuana has been enjoyed by humans since as far back as the prehistoric era, being a major part of many cultures around the globe. While its exact origins are not 100% known, scientists believe cannabis originated in central Asia or China, and since then it has been harvested for many purposes. The plant has historically been used for producing fibres, for its great range of medicinal benefits, as well as for recreation. Its psychoactive effects have also been an integral part of spiritual or religious traditions for many cultures.
The climate and environment have influenced the way different cultures used cannabis in the past. As a weed, cannabis can grow practically anywhere, but different climates lead to the production of different strains. Hot and dry climates are great for producing weed with high THC levels, while cooler or humid environments lead to low potency strains, which are better for fibres. It’s no surprise then that regions with a hot climate have historically been using cannabis for recreation, or as part of traditions and rituals, due to the plant’s strong psychoactive properties. For example, bhang (a high-potency cannabis strain) has been used in India for thousands of years as an important part of various traditions.
On the other hand, in Europe and North America, the main purpose of harvesting cannabis until the 19th century was for its high-quality fibres, derived from hemp. This is in no small part thanks to the colder environment, which determined the qualities and properties of the plant.
Marijuana in North America
It’s not completely clear when pot started being used in North America for its psychoactive effects. There’s a chance that some native Americans were already using marijuana as part of their culture before white settlers’ arrival in the early 1600s, but the evidence is not clear.
Between the 17th and early 19th centuries, cannabis was mostly cultivated in the USA and Canada in the form of hemp. In 1801, hemp seeds were distributed to Canadian farmers, for fueling the economy.
Cannabis was also used for its medicinal benefits during the late 19th century. Its medical properties were widely researched at the time, with doctors commonly prescribing it for many health conditions. However, the development of opiates – faster and more effective painkillers – caused cannabis to gradually lose popularity in the medical field.
In the 1910s and 1920s, marijuana gradually became part of the underground culture in the USA, leading to a global perception shift, with this image not completely gone even today. At that time there was a wave of migration of Mexican workers into the USA, and smoking weed became more associated with minorities and the working class. In Canada, despite marijuana not being widely used, it became illegal in 1923, joining the list of other restricted drugs such as cocaine and morphine.
The psychoactive properties of cannabis became better known in the USA and Canada in the early 20th century. At the same time, the rising synthetic textile and newspaper industries recognized the threat of cannabis fibres, therefore influencing government policies against the plant.
Canada Pot Popularity in the late 60s
The 1960s in the USA showed a boom in pot consumption, especially due to the hippie, psychedelic counterculture of the time. The movement reached Canada and became popular in the late 1960s and 70s, as Canadian youth began rejecting many social norms and values of the time, including racism, lack of women’s rights, and poverty.
Marijuana consumption sky-rocketed. Head shops became popular places among smokers, selling various weed and tobacco paraphernalia, such as bongs, vaporizers, grinders etc. Other counterculture items such as magazines, clothes, or posters were (and still are) also popular in head shops.
Multiculturalism is likely to have also played a part in the marijuana boom in Canada in the late 60s and 70s. Travelling to foreign cultures became a popular activity for Canadians, who were thus exposed to the traditional uses of marijuana in the East.
The immigration policy of Canada also changed in the 60s, and alongside immigrants from different cultures, the government also implemented a more open policy, allowing them to keep some of their cultural traditions, although marijuana was not seen as acceptable by the authorities. Canadians embraced pot, but the government did not.
Despite the growing weed consumption, the Canadian government tightened regulations, by signing the UN’s Convention on Psychotropic Substances in 1971. During the 70s and 80s, Canada was also influenced by the USA’s war on drugs. Despite the government’s efforts, smoking pot only increased in popularity, especially during the 1990s.
Canada’s marijuana policy started shifting in the 1990s, for medical reasons, following the case of a man suffering from epilepsy. Terrence Parker was growing and using cannabis because of his epilepsy seizures, and he was arrested multiple times for possession. In 1997, he was once again arrested for possession, as well as cultivation and trafficking, as he had admitted to distributing weed to other patients. The judged ruled in his favour, claiming the law was unconstitutional and violated Terrence’s rights. His case caused a reconsideration of the policies on medicinal marijuana. In 2001, it became officially regulated through the Marihuana for Medical Access Regulations (MMAR).
The government made changes to the MMAR in 2013, implementing the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR). The new regulation also allowed commercial licensing for the cultivation and distribution of medical cannabis. However, the MMPR didn’t allow patients to produce their own cannabis, which meant they could only get marijuana from licensed producers. This changed in 2016, with the new Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations (ACMPR).
Possession and cultivation
By the 1990s, many European countries had already given up prosecuting people for possession. In Canada, possession was still criminalized, with policies and regulations changing throughout the 2000s and 2010s. In 2003 and 2005 the liberal government presented two decriminalization attempts for weed possession, but neither of them came into effect. A new anti-drug policy was implemented in 2006, doubling the maximum prison sentence for cultivating cannabis from 7 to 14 years.
In 2012 Justin Trudeau proposed complete legalization of marijuana as a major point in of his electoral campaign, becoming Prime Minister in 2015. The Cannabis Act officially passed in 2017 and came into effect in October 2018.