This story is over 5 years old.

From 'Raving Maniacs' to the 'Prince of Pot': A History of Weed in Canada

Canada has had a complicated relationship with marijuana over the years.
Photo by Anthony Tuccitto

British Columbia may be known for its bud now, but Canada has had a complicated relationship with marijuana over the years. A synopsis:

Emily Murphy, an iconic early feminist and Canada's first female judge, published "The Black Candle," a 400-page screed against drug use and the threat of the "black and yellow races." In the book, Murphy quotes a police chief saying that pot smokers "become raving maniacs and are liable to kill or indulge in any form of violence to other persons, using the most savage methods of cruelty without, as said before, any sense of moral responsibility."


Parliament passed Liberal Prime Minister William Mackenzie King's "Act to Prohibit the Improper Use of Opium and other Drugs," which added marijuana, along with heroin and codeine, to a schedule of outlawed drugs. The law included a provision to allow the deportation of foreigners who trafficked drugs, and historian Catherine Carstairs found that it penalized Asian Canadians far more severely than white ones.

For the first time on record Canadian police seized marijuana cigarettes. "They are particularly dangerous to young people, to whom their use is almost exclusively confined, as all indications point to the fact that their illicit sale takes place in cabarets and dance halls, where young people not previously addicted to any form of narcotic, congregate," Chief of the Canadian Narcotic Service Colonel C. H. L. Sharman wrote of the incident in his Annual report in March 1933.

The film "Reefer Madness" was released in the United States, depicting the melodramatic tale of high school teens whose use of marijuana leads to a hit-and-run, manslaughter, attempted rape, hallucinations and the eventual descent into madness and addiction. The film was originally titled "Tell You Children" and was reportedly funded by a church group.

Screenshot from Reefer Madness. 

In the United States "The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937" made the possession or sale of marijuana illegal nationwide, with some exceptions for industrial and medical use.


The Toronto Daily Star ran a story warning of the perils of pot under the headline, "Marijuana Smokers Seized with Sudden Craze to Kill: Officer Warns that Insidious Weed is Even Supplied to School Children."

With the rise of the '60's counter culture use of pot and other drugs increased among middle-class youth and the passage of the "Narcotic Control Act" increased the maximum penalty for possessing marijuana to up to seven years in prison. The maximum penalty for trafficking was set at 25 years, which in Canada is considered a life sentence. The heavy penalties did little to curb rising use of the drug.

Under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, father to the current prime minister, the Canadian government convened a royal commission to develop evidence-based policy around drug use chaired by Supreme Court justice Gerald Le Dain. "This is the opportunity for Canada to lead the world," John Lennon told commission officials at the time.

Then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau with his family in 1977. He's got his hand on the head of his son, Justin, who is now prime minister. AP photo. 

Canadian police arrested 8,389 people for possession of pot over the course of the year, up from 431 in 1967.

Twenty young women spent 98 days at the Addiction Research Foundation of Ontario being subjected to a comprehensive battery of physical and mental tests to attempt to determine the effects of daily pot consumption. The complete findings of the study, known as Project E206, have to this day not been made public.

The Le Dain commission published its 1,148-page report, which found the penalties attached to marijuana to be "grossly excessive" and "completely unreasonable." The commission noted concerns from healthcare professionals linking the chronic use of pot to the triggering of mental health disorders such as schizophrenia (a correlation also suggested by some contemporary research), but found no evidence to support a tie to violent crime. The report found the claim that marijuana serves as a gateway to harder drugs to be "highly questionable," and stated that possession of pot "does not justify imprisonment in any circumstance." The commission was heralded for its work by policy experts and doctors and but prompted no policy changes.


The Netherlands passed a law tolerating possession of small quantities of marijuana. Although pot remains illegal to this day, under what has come to be known as the Dutch model, the government does not prosecute people for selling or possessing small quantities of the drug and officially tolerates the country's cannabis coffee shops.

Newspapers quote Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau telling the Young Liberals club at the University of Toronto that, "Government policy is that if you have a joint and you're smoking it for your private pleasure, you shouldn't be hassled." The elder Trudeau reportedly dodged questions about whether he himself had smoked pot but suggested that legislative change was planned.

Related: Justin Trudeau's Battle for Legal Weed in Canada Is Going to Be a Total Mess

Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Joe Clark gave a speech announcing his government's intent to reform the Criminal Code provisions on marijuana, but the government was ousted before these changes could be made. Trudeau's re-elected Liberals then signed the United Nations "Convention on Psychotropic Substances," shelving plans to change the law around pot. 1981In the United States, Ronald Reagan gives a speech saying, "We're taking down the surrender flag that has flown over so many drug efforts; we're running up a battle flag." The ensuing 'war on drugs' would color American and Canadian marijuana policy for much of the next two decades.


The Canadian Drug Strategy is introduced to coordinate the efforts of various government and non-government agencies to address drug abuse in Canada.


Libertarian activist Marc Emery was convicted for selling copies of 2 Live Crews' album As Nasty As They Wanna Be, which was at the time banned under Ontario obscenity laws. Following his sentencing, Emery began selling marijuana magazine High Times in protest of a 1998 act that outlawed literature promoting "the production, preparation or consumption of illicit drugs." In 1994, Emery, by then running a Vancouver head shop and selling marijuana seeds by mail, helped finance a case in which an Ontario court overturned the literature ban. Emery's advocacy would eventually lead him to be dubbed Canada's 'Prince of Pot.'

Marc Emery returns to Canada in 2013. Photo by Cannabis Culture editor Jeremiah Vandermeer, via Flickr Creative Commons

With the passage of Proposition 215, California became the first of the United States to allow the medical use of marijuana.

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's Liberal government passed the "Controlled Drugs and Substances Act," repealing the 1961 "Narcotics Control Act" but maintaining its squarely prohibitionist stance on marijuana. The law received broad criticism from groups including The Canadian Police Association and The Canadian Bar Association for furthering a 'war on drugs' agenda.


Terrence Parker, an epileptic man, who used marijuana to treat his seizures was arrested and charged with possession. The ensuing court battle would eventually lead the Ontario Court of Appeal to rule that, "The prohibition on the possession and cultivation of marijuana for personal use to treat the accused's epilepsy deprived him of his rights to liberty and security of the person" — setting a legal precedent that would shape many ensuing rulings. 2001


In response to the Parker case the government introduces the "Canadian Medical Marijuana Access Regulations," authorizing patients to grow their own pot or obtain it from Health Canada or licensed producers.

A Senate study reaffirmed the findings of the Le Dain's commission writing, "The Commission concluded that the criminalization of cannabis had no scientific basis. We confirm this conclusion and add that continued criminalization of cannabis remains unjustified based on scientific data on the danger it poses."

Police discovered 40,000 pot plants in a cornfield in eastern Ontario, a find that officers valued at $40-million and called the largest drug bust in Canadian history.

Marc Emery was sentenced in absentia to five years in American prison for selling marijuana seeds to clients in the USA. Emery, who had several previous trafficking convictions in Canada, was extradited in 2010 and served four years on his sentence.

In Canada, 26,099 Canadians are charged for possession over the course of the year. Stephen Harper's Conservative government tabled the "Safe Streets and Communities Act," creating mandatory minimum jail sentences for the cultivation of pot. At the same time, the federal Liberal party, under the interim leadership of Bob Rae, voted overwhelmingly to support policies to legalize and tax marijuana. In the United States, Colorado and Washington adopted ballot initiatives legalizing pot for recreational use.

The Canadian Associations of Chiefs of Police announce that they do not support decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana, but suggested that those caught in possession of the drug should be ticketed rather than arrested. "Under the current legislation the only enforcement option for police, when confronted with simple possession of cannabis, is either to turn a blind eye or lay charges," association president Jim Chu said at the time. New Liberal leader Justin Trudeau told the media that he smoked pot while a Member of Parliament and reaffirmed the his party's support for legalizing the drug. Uruguay becomes the first country to legalize weed.

The "Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations," came into full effect in Canada creating a commercial market of government licensed producers of medical marijuana. A court ruling staved off other regulatory changes that would have outlawed growing pot plants for personal medical use.

Vancouver becomes first city to regulate the grey market of marijuana dispensaries that have exploded in numbers. This, despite vocal opposition from the Conservatives, that threaten to send in the RCMP to raid the pot shops, which are technically illegal. The raids would come later.

On the trail of a campaign that would eventually see his party unseated by the tax-and-legalize Liberals, Stephen Harper said that marijuana is "infinitely worse" than tobacco — a claim that was swiftly dismissed as false by public health experts. Earlier in the campaign Harper claimed that a majority of Canadians agreed with his opposition to legalizing the drug. Voter survey data from the Canadian Broadcasting Company showed at the time that 86 percent of Canadians and 75 percent of Conservative voters supported legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana.