Facts You May Have Never Known About The History of Why Canada Made Cannabis Illegal

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I asked Bob if I could write a couple of blogs for his Locavore’s Digest column related to October 17th, the day the Canadian Government made cannabis legal in Canada, again, and he thought it would be a good idea and of interest to locavore’s because of the future involving edibles, food items that are made with THC or CBDs. My plan was to write about cannabis and relate it to food but then he asked me if I knew the reason for Canada making cannabis illegal. I did not know and I thought it would be interesting to find out if it was because of some big pharmaceutical company or prominent big-wig afraid of some sort of hemp bi-product competition. So I did some investigating.

Back in 1801, hemp had been used for many things: clothes; rope, paper, food, medicine and more recently it has been used in cars, plastics, building materials, linens and so on. In these times the Canadian government was distributing hemp seeds to farmers to help stimulate industry in the country. If you had land the government wanted you to use it to grow hemp. In 1822 the provincial parliament of Upper Canada allocated 300 pounds (it wasn’t until 1867 that the Canadian dollar was established but that amount would equal $23,880 British pounds today) for machinery to process hemp and incentivize domestic hemp producers in 1822. Not much else has been recorded until 1917 when a new machine was invented making it easier to separate hemp fiber from the internal core, but hemp production dropped in favour of cotton production, which was less labour intensive.

In 1923, the prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s Liberal government introduced an Act to Prohibit the Improper Use of Opium and Other Drugs. At the time, the only drugs on the proscribed list were heroin, morphine, opium and eucaine (which was a local anesthetic first introduced as a substitute for cocaine). With the new bill, heroin, codeine and cannabis or hasheesh were added without explanation.

While being part of the cannabis family hemp is completely different from marijuana in its function, cultivation and application. But these differences didn’t stop our political leaders from getting confused and grouping all cannabis species as a drug. When Parliament decided to add cannabis to the schedule of proscribed drugs Canada became one of the first countries to make smoking pot illegal. The U.S. didn’t accomplish that until 14 years later, in the midst of the Great Depression. 

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of documentation as to why this decision was made by Canadian government, and if there was any kind of parliamentary debate, historians have been unable to find a record of it. Meanwhile, some of the myths surrounding the making of cannabis illegal include something to do with women’s right’s activists, or that we were influenced by the U.S. who was having problems with marijuana at the time, or our attendance at international meetings influenced our decision.

Cannabis advocates have long blamed women’s right activist Emily Murphy. Her 1922 book on the drug trade in Canada, The Black Candle, claimed that marijuana users “became raving maniacs” and “are liable to kill or indulge in any sort of violence.” Murphy’s drug activism played an important role in strengthening Canada’s drug laws in the early 1920s.

If we use the U.S. model one has to focus on California. On July 2, 1911, Henry Finger, California Enforcer, wrote “Within the last year we in California have been getting a large influx of Hindoos* and they have in turn started quite a demand for cannabis indica; they are a very undesirable lot and the habit is growing in California very fast…the fear is now that they are initiating our whites into this habit.”  And, after the Mexican Revolution of 1910, a wave of Mexican immigrants poured into the southwestern U.S. and helped popularize the recreational use of the drug. They were often viewed with as much disdain as the Hindoos. In 1913, without any public debate, California bureaucrats banned pot. Even though pot was largely unknown to Californians in 1913, prohibition was seen as a pre-emptive, progressive idea. So maybe this was something the Canadian government was monitoring up until 1923.

When the U.S. decided to ban cannabis in 1937 it was felt that there were four conspirators cooperating to kill the hemp industry with something called the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. These conspirators are identified as newspaperman William Randalph Hearset, whom the legend describes as being healthily invested in the timber industry to support his papers and he also began writing stories in his newspapers about this new drug called marijuana, which was causing blacks and Mexicans to rape and kill white women. This led to a propaganda movie in 1936 called “Reefer Madness” that portrayed cannabis as the most dangerous drug in the world; there was also the DuPont family, whose chemical company had just invented nylon and was allegedly afraid of competition from hemp fiber; Andrew Mellon, Secretary of the Treasury and the U.S.’s richest man who had significant investments in Dupont; and Harry Anslinger, commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who drafted the legislation. To protect their industrial interests, these parties are said to have conspired to make hemp illegal in the U.S.

Still, there is another theory. International drug control was a relatively new phenomenon in the early 20th century, with the first major drug control conference was held in 1909 and it was at The Hague Opium Conference in 1912 that the United Kingdom signed The International Opium Convention. This was the first international drug control treaty. It was registered in League of Nations Treaty Series on January 23, 1922. The treaty had been signed by Germany, the United States, China, France, the United Kingdome, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Persia, Portugal, Russia, and Siam. Each country had their own reasons for wanting to have drugs controlled but it was the United States that convened the 13-nation conference of the International Opium Commission in 1909 in Shanghai, China in response to increasing criticism of the opium trade. I haven’t been able to find any factual evidence that this was the reason for illegalization and I don’t believe this theory was put forward until 1929, when the assistant chief of Canada’s so-called Narcotic Division, K.C. Hossick, wrote that Canada had to include cannabis on the schedule of restricted drugs because Canada (United Kingdom) had ratified the Hague Convention. However, it was not until 1925 that cannabis came under international control, and Canada had banned cannabis two years earlier. Even so, Hossick’s reference to the international treaties suggests that the idea for adding the drug came from international discussions.

Whatever the reason cannabis became an illegal substance in Canada, it will be changed to legal on October 17th. What the future holds, is anybody’s guess. What is predictable though is this fact: competition for market share and profit will be fierce. Molsons Brewing Co. has already declared their interest in being part of the new industry as well as Second Cup, which plans to convert some of their coffee shops to pot lounges. Many more companies also are also watching patiently to see what opportunities will be available once legalization is here.

*The "Hindoos," were actually East Indian immigrants of Sikh religion and Punjabi origin, had become a popular target of anti-immigrant sentiment after several boatloads arrived in San Francisco in 1910. Their arrival sparked an uproar of protest from Asian exclusionists, who pronounced them to be even more unfit for American civilization than the Chinese. Their influx was promptly stanched by immigration authorities, leaving little more than 2,000 in the state, mostly in agricultural areas of the Central Valley.

“The Hindoos were widely denounced for their outlandish customs, dirty clothes, strange food, suspect morals, and especially their propensity to work for low wages. Aside from Finger, however, no one complained about their use of cannabis. To the contrary, their defenders portrayed them as hard-working and sober. 'The taking of drugs as a habit scarcely exists among them,' wrote one observer.” The Grand, Racist, Hundred-Year History of Pot Prohibition in California By David Downs for East Bay Express, January 2013.