A History of Drug Prohibition in Canada


Drug prohibition in Canada began with the Opium Act of 1908, which was introduced based on a report by then Deputy Minister of Labour, Mackenzie King. Following the Asiatic Exclusion Riot of 1907, Mackenzie King went to Vancouver to investigate causes of the riots and claims for compensation. Some of the claims came from opium manufacturers seeking compensation for damage done to their production facilities by the mob that attacked Chinatown and Japantown. While in Vancouver, King interviewed members of a Chinese anti-opium league and came away in favour of suppressing the drug because "opium smoking was making headway, not only among white men and boys, but also among women and girls." 

In his report, King summarized the progress of the anti-opium movement in China, the United States, Britain and Japan to make the point that Canada was lagging behind in this international movement. King's recommendations were the basis for the 1908 Opium Act, which prohibited the sale, manufacture and importation of opium for non medicinal use. This was followed by the Opium and Drug Act of 1911, which outlawed the sale or possession of morphine, opium or cocaine. Smoking opium became a separate offence, punishable by a maximum penalty of $50 and one month in jail.   

Mackenzie King introduced the new legislation based on recommendations from the Chief Constable of the Vancouver Police and to bring Canada's drug laws in line with resolutions passed at an American-led international anti-opium conference in Shangai. The name of the 1911 Act is significant because it separates opium, associated with Chinese users, from "white drugs," so labelled because of the colour of both the drugs themselves and the race of those presumed to be consuming them.   

The next wave of legislation began with the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act of 1920, which was amended in 1921 and again in 1922 before being consolidated in 1923.   Penalties became stiffer in the 1920s, with far more prison terms being handed out compared with the earlier period when fines were typically given.  Maximum prison sentences also increased from one to seven years and in 1922, possession and trafficking became a deportable offences.  The catalyst for these laws also differed from the earlier ones in that they were largely the result of the agitation of moral reformers, particularly those in Vancouver who had stirred up a full-blown moral panic over the drug issue in the early 1920s.  

Race remained a persistent theme and the drug prohibition movement was closely related to the move to totally exclude Chinese immigrants from Canada, which led to the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act. Cannabis was added to the Confidential Restricted List in 1923 under the Narcotics Drug Act Amendment Bill after a vague reference to a "new drug" during a late night session of the House of Commons on   April 23, 1923.  More specifically, the government introduced the Act to Prohibit the Improper Use of Opium and other Drugs; this was a consolidation of other legislation but now listed three new drugs, including marijuana.   

Historians often point to the 1922 publication of Emily Murphy's 'The Black Candle' as the inspiration for the addition of the three extra drugs. Murphy was a suffragette and police magistrate who wrote a series of articles in MacLean's magazine under the pen-name "Janey Canuck," which formed the basis of her book. She used numerous anecdotes culled mostly from anti-drug reformers and police to make her arguments, which made strong links between drugs, race and the threat this poses to white women. She claimed that a ring of immigrants from other countries, particularly China, would corrupt the white race. "It is hardly credible that the average Chinese peddler has any definite idea in his mind of bringing about the downfall of the white race, his swaying motive being probably that of greed, but in the hands of his superiors, he may become a powerful instrument to that end."  

More likely, Cannabis was added to the list because of Canadian involvement in international conferences where it was discussed. According to one government official, Cannabis was outlawed after the Director of the Federal Division of Narcotic Control returned from League of Nations meetings where the international control of the drug was broached.  Cannabis did not begin to attract official attention in Canada until the latter 1930s, and even then it was minimal. The first seizure of Cannabis by Canadian police was not until 1937. Between 1946 and 1961, Cannabis accounted for only 2% of all drug arrests in Canada.

While recreational use of Cannabis in the Western hemisphere had been growing since the 1800s, it remained almost unheard of in Canada until the 1930s, and it was not until the 1960s that Cannabis surged in popularity as a drug. Initially in the 1960s the drug was popular among middle-class college students, only later expanding to other demographics. The maximum penalty for possession of small quantities was six months in prison and a $1,000 fine for a first offence.  Convictions for Cannabis skyrocketed, from 25 convictions between 1930 and 1946, to 20 cases in 1962, to 2,300 cases in 1968, to 12,000 in 1972.The Narcotics Control Act of 1961 increased maximum penalties to 14 years to life imprisonment.  

According to a report titled For The Senate Special Committee On Illegal Drugs, the increase in marijuana use during the 1960s was due to the "hippie psychedelic ethos", a counter culture that rejected traditional values, the growth of underground newspapers and the increased discussion about the drug in the mass media. The report also suggests that increased travel to parts of the world such as the Far East, where hashish was readily available at moderate cost, contributed to the popularity of the drug culture.

In response to the increased popularization of marijuana and the increase in criminal charges against middle class citizens, the government formed the Royal Commission of Inquiry in the Non-Medical Use of Drugs usually referred to as the Le Dain Commission in 1969 to investigate the non-medical Cannabis use in Canada.  The commission's 1972 report recommended removing criminal penalties for Cannabis possession, though not legalization, per se. While the subsequent two federal governments discussed the recommendation, no steps were actually taken to change legislation.  

During the 1980s, Gallup polls indicated that Cannabis use was stabilizing; this may have been because of the penalties and changing opinion of the public toward a less permissive attitude that objected more strenuously to the marijuana-based lifestyle. However, Cannabis use increased significantly during the 1990s. For example, statistics for Ontario between 1996 and 2000 indicated that use among 18-29 year olds increased from 18% to 28%.

By 2006, a high percentage of the population was using Cannabis recreationally and medically, in spite of the risk of police charges for possession.  According to statistics gathered by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), nearly half (44%) of Canadians admit to trying it at least once; no statistics were provided as to the percentage who use it frequently. The CAMH report also indicates that by the last year of high school, nearly half (46%) of Ontario students admit to having used marijuana in the past year.

An October 2016 national poll by Forum suggests that about five million adult Canadians now use Cannabis at least once a month; this is expected to increase by 19 percent after marijuana is legalized. A report by Canada's Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) is more bullish, estimating that by 2021 some 5.2 million adults may be users.