On October 17th, 2018, the Federal Government of Canada legalized the recreational use of cannabis nation-wide (ontario.ca). Prior to cannabis’ criminalization, it enjoyed a long history of use for social, religious, and medical purposes (Savelli, 2018a). Despite this, the drug was made illegal in 1923 as outlined in the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act(Fischer, Ala-Leppilampi, Single & Robins, 2003) without any significant public debate (Savelli, 2018a), even prompting the United Nations to include its criminalization in a drug control treaty signed by Canada (Brewley-Taylor, 2017). Ninety-five years later, and this once illegal drug has come full circle. It is now enjoyed by many Canadians publicly and even grown privately by citizens who are allotted four plants on their property at a time (ontario.ca). I argue that this drastic cultural shift was facilitated by changing social factors coupled with a lack of objective reasoning supporting cannabis’ initial criminalization.

Fischer et al (2003) regard the criminalization of cannabis use in 1923 as “a solution without a problem” (p. 267). They further go on to describe this phenomenon as “a sudden political occurrence, without an apparent rationale, creating criminal status for a drug that would remain virtually unknown and irrelevant for almost three decades” (Fischer et al, 2003, p. 266). To provide historical context, prior to the criminalization of cannabis in 1923 was a similar prohibition of opium in 1908 following the Opium Act(Fischer et al, 2003). Scholars argue this legal document was a response to the fear of the migrating Chinese who were associated with opium, prompting not only racial, but economic and moral conflict during a developmental time of industrializing Canada (Fischer et al, 2003). The law is theorised by Fischer et al (2003) to have originated in hopes of containing the “Asian problem”, thus engineering Canadian social order (p. 267). This ideological framework of the criminalization of a substance being associated with racist ideologies is present in the cannabis narrative as well. Its criminalization had less to do with the substance’s harms or potential addictive nature, and more to do with who was using it.

Prior to its criminalization, Fischer et al (2003) remind us that cannabis use was not a significant issue in Canada, avoiding media problematization (unlike opium and cocaine). In the early 1920’s, cannabis use appeared in the Hispanic labour force and within urban populations in the United States (Fischer et al, 2003). Despite this, its moral panic did not begin until the 1930s, when support for drug prohibition was falling and the US Federal Bureau of Narcotics subsequently constructed marijuana as a menace (Fischer et al, 2003), thus further reinforcing the social aspects of this phenomenon that are not unique to Canada. Scholars argue that the advent of marijuana’s criminalization within a Canadian context can be attributed to a novel published in 1922 by Canadian women’s rights activist Emily Murphy, entitled The Black Candle(Fischer et al, 2003). In this novel, Murphy argued that marijuana was the “new menace”, using American propaganda to frame cannabis as a drug that turned its users into “raving maniacs…liable to kill or indulge in violence…” having the “mentality…of idiots” leading to the “ultimate death of its addicts” (Fischer et al, 2003, p. 268). Murphy also linked the drug to “blacks and Orientals” theorizing they used the drug to “seduce white women” and enslave the white race, further linking cannabis to interracial sex and violence (Savelli, 2018a). Fischer et al (2003) argued that her writing “powerfully influenced” government officials to criminalize the substance, but I additionally propose that this piece of propaganda was used to legitimize a mentality rooted in racism and fear of the other. Despite theorizations, researchers still have no concrete legal explanations as to why cannabis was added to the schedule of theOpium and Drug Actin 1923 (Fischer et al, 2003), thus further solidifying this codification as a social phenomenon.

Moving into the mid-1930s, increasing attention was paid to cannabis by Canadian politics and media. Such attention mostly revolved around scares, as there were a mere 25 marijuana offences recorded between 1930 and 1946 in Canada (Fischer et al, 2003). Though its criminalization still relied mostly on moral panic, in the 1950’s cannabis was closely associated with the inner city (Savelli, 2018a). This shifted concerns from being rooted in racist ideologies against Mexicans, to new concerns over urban environments and the inner city (Savelli, 2018a). Despite further codification of cannabis’ evils, specifically in the Narcotic Control Actof 1961 (which outlined maximum sentences of seven years in prison for possession and life imprisonment for supply offences), its popularity was increasing (Fischer et al, 2003). Fischer et al (2003) describe cannabis in the 1960’s as “prevalent symbolically and fashionably, amidst the emerging counter-culture, liberation, and anti-authoritarian movements in that period” (p. 269). Cannabis was also seen to have challenged drug-user stereotypes that previously promoted its criminalization, as users were open and elicit about their use of this drug (Fischer et al, 2003) and its perceived benefits.

During this time of radical hippie culture, social order was once again threatened. Tough on crime political agendas were backed by new addiction science, which suggested that cannabis use may harm well-being, productivity and lead to crime (Fischer et al, 2003). Thus, this once again shifted Canada’s anti-cannabis campaign away from literature based on racial attitudes and fear of the lower class, towards rooting itself in “science” (Fischer et al, 2003, p. 269-270). The number of drug arrests for cannabis annually grew from around 10,000 in 1972 to 29,000 in 1974, with most users under twenty-five, white, and from the middle class or wealthy (Fischer et al, 2003). Martel (2006) highlights that during the 1970s, inaction of the federal government on drug related issues was often criticized by the public. In 1973, the BC Alcohol and Drug Commission purported the idea of not just restricting drugs but also focussing on drug dependency or “addiction” (Martel, 2006), thus pushing anxieties of marijuana use to the forefront, causing the previously mentioned sharp increase of arrests in 1974.

Millhorn (2009) notes that Canadians have become even more accepting of marijuana since the 1970s. Yet, as neo-conservatism was on the rise in the mid-1980s and the War on Drugswas in full effect in the United States, there was no intention to revise cannabis prohibition (Fischer et al, 2003). Increasingly, the adverse consequences of criminal prohibition were starting to be viewed as problems bigger than cannabis itself (Fischer et al, 2003), thus prompting both political and social tension amongst Canadians. The introduction of Bill C-7 as a successor to the Narcotic Control Act “generated widespread opposition…from a wide spectrum of witnesses - lawyers, addiction researchers, medical and public health experts, even the Canadian Police Association critiqued the bill for its broad punitive approach to drug use and for its failure to provide for more appropriate cannabis-use control” (Fischer et al, 2003, p. 273). As the number of arrests grew, so did criticism over this overly punitive approach, thus prompting interest groups at the turn of the century to push for cannabis’ decriminalization by focusing on its medical capacities (Fischer et al, 2003).

There was even growing pressure from Canadian courts to revise the drug’s criminalization; people who used cannabis for chronic illnesses argued its criminalization was against their right to life, liberty, and security of the person under section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Fischer et al, 2003). This prompted the Ontario Supreme Court in 2000 to declare that federal regulations governing the use of marijuana for medical purposes are unconstitutionalbecause ‘‘although patients can possess marijuana with written permission from their doctor, they currently have no access to a legal supply of the drug’’ (Millhorn, 2009, p. 134). As the notion of medical marijuana grew rapidly in popularity, the Canadian government allowed smaller licensed non-governmental cannabis retailers to distribute the drug through a mail order system, which prompted an upward surge in cannabis dispensaries since 1999 (Bear, 2017). During the early 2000’s, public opinion regarding marijuana use in Canada was evolving. There was almost unanimous support from Canadians for using marijuana medically, and there was 50% support in 2003 for legalizing the drug completely (Fischer et al, 2003). Fischer et al (2003) note that the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugsconcluded that "cannabis in itself poses very little danger to users and to society as a whole" and that "in addition to being ineffective and costly, criminalization leads to a series of harmful consequences" thus recommending legalization in 2002 (p. 277).

In 2015, a new Liberal government led by Justin Trudeau came to power with one of the main promises of their platform being the commitment to legalize cannabis across Canada (Bear, 2017). The potential business industry of cannabis was promising, as this drug could make $22 billion in government revenue based off of the 14 million Canadians who may consume it (Bear, 2017). Not only was this legalization promoted through its economic benefits, but in the words of the Liberal party, “to ensure that we keep marijuana out of the hands of children, and the profits out of the hands of criminals, we will legalize, regulate, and restrict access to marijuana” (Bear, 2017, p. 97). Becoming what Rehm, Crépault, and Fischer call a “leader as an experimental society” (2016, p. 174), on October 17th, 2018, the Liberal government fulfilled its promise and legalized the recreational use of cannabis on a nation-wide basis. They also birthed their first online recreational cannabis-distribution business, which is said to be moving into brick and mortar stores as cannabis further enjoys its legality during the new year (ontario.ca). Crépault (2018) reflects on the legalization of cannabis, stating that the Canadian government needs to take a public health approach to this endeavor, remaining “aware of [their] position as producer and reproducer of certain discourses and practices” within the nation surrounding this newly legalized drug (p. 13). Deeming public health as a site of power, Crépault further states that the legalization of cannabis should shift social policy to focus on structural factors that underlie drug-related harm rather than commercial interests (2018). He also suggests that cannabis legalization can begin a trend towards analyzing how legalization and regulation may benefit users of other psychoactive substances beyond cannabis, thus purporting the notion that such political shifts could ameliorate social and health related harms associated with substance use (Crépault, 2018). This, Crépault (2018) believes, relies on “legislators, regulators, but also medical and allied health professionals, including public health workers, and other experts” (p. 4).

Conclusively, by analyzing the past hundred years of Canadian attitudes towards cannabis, it is evident that social shifts facilitate the ways that drugs are perceived, thus influencing how such drugs are reflected in political legislation. The arbitrary criminalization of cannabis in 1923 despite little popularity across Canada reflects the ways in which cannabis was racialized into a dangerous menace based off who was using it. Jumping almost one-hundred years into the future to 2018, and the Canadian government is hailed as revolutionary, progressive thinkers for legalizing cannabis’ recreational use thanks to Supreme Court Cases, cannabis’ medical capacities and a shift in social attitudes. In short, few policies relied on scientific evidence of concrete harms or benefits of cannabis when denouncing or endorsing the drug. Rather, the shifts in social attitudes that occurred in the 95 years between criminalization and legalization of cannabis are responsible for such a drastic reversal.


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Department of Health Studies. McMaster.