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High History: A Look Back at Canadian Weed Law

On the eve of Canada’s landmark legalization legislation, here is a short guide to how illegal it was to smoke dope for over a hundred years.

Alright, Canada. We're finally (almost) there: the federal government is about to introduce legislation setting out how its citizens will be able to legally smoke weed for fun. The Narc's reign of terror is nearly over and I have no idea what woke stoners will get mad about online anymore after legalization.

But just how long has this road to true dank freedom been, exactly? Allow me to regale you with a brief history of The Man's many efforts to harsh your vibe.

Drug prohibition in Canada began in 1908, after future prime minister Mackenzie King travelled to Vancouver. He was there on behalf of the federal government to investigate the causes (and insurance claims) of the 1907 Asian Exclusion League riots, when a racist mob tore up the city's Chinatown and Japantown. A number of opium manufacturers were looking for compensation, but after interviewing several Chinese anti-opium activists, King came to the conclusion that opium-smoking was becoming dangerously popular among white people. Canada promptly moved to ban its recreational use.

The Opium Act was introduced in 1908 and banned the possession, sale, or manufacture of opium for anything other than medical use, punishable by a $50 fine and up to a month in prison. It was followed by the 1911 Opium and Drug Act, which made smoking opium a separate offense, and also introduced legislation restricting the use and trafficking of morphine and cocaine. And in 1923, the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act further ratcheted up the penalties for drug use and trafficking. Maximum prison sentences were increased from one year to seven, and possession and trafficking were now deportable offenses.

It was an amendment to this act in April 1923 that first added marijuana to the list of controlled substances in Canada.

It's worth noting that early drug prohibition in Canada was tied up with blatant anti-Asian racism—making opium possession a deportable offense deliberately dovetailed with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923. Some historians also point to the 1922 publication of The Black Candle by Emily Murphy, one of the Famous Five and a big eugenics enthusiast, as instrumental in the prohibition on pot. Among other things, the book argued that Mexicans—as part of a sinister conspiracy between all the world's inferior races known only as The Ring, dedicated to white genocide—were getting white women hooked on marijuana in order to transform them into insane sex slaves for their Negroid overlords. Who needs drugs when your imagination is this wild?

( The Black Candle's influence is disputed by other historians, who point out that even by the hilariously racist standards of Canada in the Jazz Age, federal officials did not take Murphy's paranoid fantasies seriously. Instead, the drug was likely added to the Narcotic Drug Act in 1923 because that's what all the other countries attending international anti-drug symposiums were doing at the time. Peer pressure is only bad when it makes you take drugs, not criminalize them.)

Anyways, for a long time, pot in Canada wasn't a big deal. The first seizure of marijuana in Canada didn't take place until 1937, and between 1946 and 1961 there were only 25 cannabis-related convictions altogether. But in the early 1960s, the Boomers—then just gentle children, before they evolved into the monsters of today—discovered that getting extremely high and listening to Elvis is really fun. And anywhere that kids are having fun, The Man is there to crack down.

Marijuana-related convictions spiked: there were 20 cases in 1962, 2300 cases in 1968, and 12000 in 1972. Given that penalties for possession of even small amounts of pot could carry a six-month prison sentence and a $1000 fine, it was a serious fucking buzzkill. The widespread popularity of the drug, along with the severity of the punishment for getting caught with it, ultimately prompted the Canadian government to respond the only way it knows how: call a government commission to study a problem for several years in the hopes that by the time it reports no one will care anymore so they won't actually have to do anything.

The Commission of Inquiry into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs, aka the Le Dain Commission, was convened in 1969 and published its final report in 1972. In that time, more than 12000 people participated in the Commission's hearings on weed, including John Lennon in December 1969. (Presumably, he had just finished hanging out with legendary Newfoundland psychonaut Geoff Stirling.)

In its final report, three of the Commission's four authors—Gerald Le Dain, Heinz Lehmann, and J. Peter Stein—recommended that the federal government should repeal the prohibition on the cultivation and possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use. The fourth, Marie-Andree Bertrand, actually wrote a minority review advocating for the complete legalization and regulation of the drug along the same lines as alcohol.

Naturally, the commission's recommendations were mostly ignored for nearly 30 years. Until 2000, when an Ontario court of appeal ruled that the prohibitions on cannabis possession and use was unconstitutional insofar as it didn't contain a legal exemption for medicinal users. This prompted the federal government to legalize medicinal marijuana in 2001, and inaugurated 15 years of hashing out the logistical details in various courtrooms across Canada. (Most recently, this culminated in a 2015 ruling that you could legally eat medical marijuana brownies, and a 2016 ruling that a law barring medical marijuana users from growing their own plants was unconstitutional.)

Following the 21st century thaw in marijuana regulation, Paul Martin's Liberal government tried twice to bring in measures to decriminalize marijuana. The first attempt in 2003 died when Parliament was prorogued, and the second bill died when Martin's government lost the confidence vote that triggered the 2006 election.

The terminally-square Stephen Harper oversaw a return to the dark ages of Canadian weed law. The Conservative government moved to bring in tougher prison sentences for marijuana trafficking, including two-year mandatory minimum prison sentences for anyone caught selling weed to youth, or near schools, or near an area where youth frequented, or any public place where a young person might conceivably appear at any point in the past, present, and future, or anywhere on the planet earth. Maximum sentences for growing pot would also increase from seven years to 14, because marijuana is "infinitely worse" than tobacco and anyone producing it is a monster.

Ironically, like Martin, Harper's re-criminalization marijuana bills had two goes of it and both failed. The first due to Parliamentary prorogation in 2009, and the second when his government lost a confidence vote in early 2011. In 2015 election, Justin Trudeau's Liberals won a majority after promising to legalize marijuana, and here we are. Barring last year's crackdown of Toronto's golden age of not-actually-legal dispensaries (RIP), we are finally on the cusp of publicly toking up in front of cops and not having it be a whole Thing.

And that's that. Moral of the story? Smoke weed every goddamn day, fuck the police, whatever.

Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.