The story of cannabis and our human interaction with the plant begins both as a utility and as a spiritual practice. Hemp fibers were cheap and durable sources of building and clothing material for early societies, while the uplifting euphorias that the plant elicited were central to several religious and ceremonial practices worldwide.
Despite these utilities, cannabis saw several long decades of prohibition in Canada that began in the early 1920s. While harsh penalties and drawn-out legal battles were waged between users, growers, and the government, a slow but steady movement towards medical legalization (and later, recreational) was growing internationally. Canadian medical cannabis was poised to make a comeback, but only with the help of a few central proponents.
Canada was not the first to reintroduce medical cannabis into popular discourse but was undoubtedly a pioneer when it came to launching the second-ever nationwide project of widespread recreational legalization in 2018, preceded only by Uruguay in 2013.
Canada was in large part able to legalize cannabis nationwide due to our experience in providing medical marijuana care under Health Canada guidelines. This blog will outline a few key events in the Canadian cannabis legalization timeline and their historical contexts so we may better appreciate and understand the contributions of the medical community in facilitating and encouraging the growth of the recreational cannabis sector in Canada.
Cannabis was first added to the Opium and Narcotic Control act during a midnight session in 1923. The considerations surrounding the drug were primarily of a moral panic, spurred by popular publications by Emily Murphy that detailed cannabis as a homicide-inducing drug with highly racialized overtones.
For decades, the “drug” was highly policed and growers faced heavy fines. A significant pause in this was introduced during WWII when American and Canadian farmers were encouraged to grow hemp to aid the war efforts. The USDA and American government offered tax breaks for growers through projects such as Hemp For Victory, though these crops were reverted to their illegal status once the project had finished.
New Legalization Considerations
In 1969, under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, the Commission of Inquiry into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs was launched to investigate potential policy changes that might see cannabis distributed and decriminalized as a recreational good. Among other recommendations, they reported that cannabis should be removed from the Narcotic Control Act and that provinces be allowed to create their own processes for distribution and sale—much like alcohol.
While the reports and hearings were well received by over 12,000 attendees, the considerations were mostly ignored by the federal government at the time, and Canadian medical cannabis continued to be offered exclusively through highly-regulated prescription at a physician’s description.
Canadian Medical Cannabis in the Late 20th Century
With medical research growing domestically and the HIV/AIDS epidemic sweeping through the west along with medical cannabis awareness in countries and states like Mexico, California, and the Netherlands, Canada gave the green light to two Canadian medical cannabis users in 1999.
A significant court ruling in Roe v. Parker saw the federal government’s hand forced when a medical cannabis patient was twice detained for possession without a prescription. In the eyes of the court, this patient was forced to choose between breaking the law and pursuing medication—an untenable relationship between law and science that demanded amending.
In 2001, the Canadian Medical Marihuana Access Regulations granted wider legal access to users with certain ongoing conditions. They could either grow their own or obtain Canadian medical cannabis from producers authorized by Health Canada. The program saw unexpected success which threatened to undermine the original project intent. Over 37,000 users had joined the program by 2013, up from 80 in 2001.
Following continual amendments to medical laws and regulations, recreational cannabis access was granted in 2018 under Justin Trudeau—almost 50 years to the day of the original inquiry of 1969.
Doing so reduced not only court cases for possession but also simplified the process of medication. It also offered a new environment for innovation in the Canadian economy and offered other countries a template for success that they could follow to achieve their own decriminalization goals.
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