How Pot Smoking Became Illegal in Canada.

AuthorCarstairs, Catherine

In 1923, when it became illegal to possess cannabis in Canada, very few Canadians would have heard of the drug, let alone tried it.

So why did legislators target weed?

Cannabis advocates have long blamed women's rights activist Emily Murphy. Her 1922 book on the drug trade in Canada, The Black Candle, claimed that marijuana users "become raving maniacs" and "are liable to kill or indulge in any sort of violence."

Emily Murphy is seen in this photo from the 1920s. (Creative Commons)

But even though Murphy's drug activism played an important role in strengthening Canada's drug laws in the early 1920s, the real reason cannabis was criminalized has much more to do with Canada's attendance at international meetings.

In the early 1920s, the panic over drug use had much to do with the drive to ban Chinese immigrants from entering Canada. Drug crusaders like Murphy blamed Chinese opium sellers for leading Canadian youth to ruin. In a series of articles in Maclean's in 1920, Murphy warned that drug-addled young women would give in to the sexual demands of Chinese men, leading to the birth of "mixed-race" babies.

In Vancouver, her articles helped give rise to an anti-drug campaign that went on for months. As a result, the federal government passed legislation increasing the minimum penalties for the possession of drugs to six months.

At roughly the same time, the government stopped virtually all Chinese immigration to Canada. But this drug panic had little to do with marijuana: It was squarely aimed at Chinese traffickers and users of opium.Even so, in the middle of this drug panic, Parliament added cannabis, not opium, to the schedule of restricted drugs. The exact reason remains a mystery.There was no debate in the House of Commons about the addition of cannabis. There are few records pertaining to the issue in Library and Archives Canada, and no mention of the decision in the media.

Cannabis banned in 1923

But controlling cannabis had been under international discussion for more than a decade, although it did not become part of an international convention until 1925, when the Geneva Convention limited Indian hemp to "medical and scientific" consumption.

In 1929, the assistant chief of Canada's so-called Narcotic Division, K.C. Hossick, wrote that Canada had to include cannabis on the schedule of restricted drugs because Canada had ratified the Hague Convention. This was not true, as it was not until 1925 that cannabis came under international...

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