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Cannabis prohibition, an absurd history part one

“Sittin’ downtown in a railway station
One toke over the line.”

From “One Toke Over The Line,” by Brewer and Shipley

Things sure change — or at least they circle back to where they began.

Of course, I am refering to the Cannabis Act, which allows for the legal use of marijuana, subject to various conditions and regulations. I suggest reading the act before celebrating any newfound freedoms since it requires focus. Speaking of which, the act now allows the federal government to focus its legislative powers against an even more addictive, notorious and dangerous drug: sugar.

How will cannabis legalization affect Canadian Society? Recent statistics suggest that five million Canadians use cannabis at least once a month. We could expect perhaps a 20-per-cent increase after legalization. This column intends to examine this question over a four-part series, more or less depending upon how the home grow-op works out.

However, by maintaining focus, we intend to cover the history, the legislation, the potential impacts and some guessing on what the future might hold.

First, how did most of us become so conservative (old fogie)? Cannabis can be found in various forms throughout various millennia. Cannabis use dates back to at least the third millennium BCE, when the plant was valued for its use for fibre, food, medicine and its psychoactive properties in recreation and religion. Hemp fibres could be found in 10,000-year-old Chinese pottery. For the record, industrial hemp contains far less of the psychoactive drug THC. So, like some members of the Senate, cannabis has been around for a while.

In Canada, drug regulation started back in 1908. Here, William Lyon Mackenzie King, then deputy minister of labour, produced a report that culminated in the Opium Act. King partook in spiritualism and mediums to stay in contact with the deceased, showing that drugs were not required for mind-expanding exercises.

Shortly after this, a moral panic began. Emily Murphy contributed to this panic through her writing The Black Candle. Some of her writings under the pen name Janey Canuck made their way into Maclean’s. Including some dubious stereotypes and questionable anecdotes, Murphy pushed for the cannabis ban. Under the chapter “Marahuana—A New Menace” she points out there are three ways out from the regency of this addiction:

“1st—Insanity, 2nd—Death, 3rd—Abandonment. This is assuredly a direful trinity . . . ”

She leaves us on the triceratops’ three-pointed horned dilemma. We would only point out that this appears to be have been written before Canada imported the letter ‘J’ from other members of the Commonwealth and the title bears a striking IP infringement by a later contender . . . George Lucas’ The Phantom Menace. We assume no cause of action exists since at least 20 years had passed since its release. Mind you, some still harbour the thought of a legal process to eliminate Jar Jar Binks.

Historians such as Catherine Carstairs question Murphy’s “contribution” toward the war on drugs. More than likely the prohibition came from when the director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics returned from the discussion for control of the drug at the League of Nations. This should not be confused with the DC Comics Justice League. Although those superheroes would have a tough time, since the drug-use problem is so diffuse. It’s beyond Superman.

Cannabis finally made the big leagues by being included on the restricted list with the 1923 Narcotic Drug Act. As with all legislation, one would think this solved the problem, but cannabis use continued to grow along with the number of prosecutions.

No discussion of an ethical dilemma would be complete without acknowledging the variously named film that went by Doped Youth, Tell Your Children! and most famously known as Reefer Madness. Produced by a church group in 1936 as a morality fable, the film was purchased by Dwain Esper, an American producer and director who added some additional salacious scenes and showed it on the exploitation circuit.

Admittedly, I did not even realize that this was a thing until I looked it up. But in any event, critics ranked it as the worst movie ever made.

The movie dramatizes how marijuana use leads to madness, murder and mayhem. The movie resurfaced as a satire for cannabis policy reform. The new colourized version now shows the colour of the exhaled smoke reflecting the emotion of the person: green, purple, etc. It’s pretty awesome.

In the ’60s, the drug culture surged owing to the hippie-psychedelic ethos of the time. This conclusion sprung from the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs in 2002.

Considering what the senate probably looked liked at the time, sprung probably does not capture the situation. You should insert whatever verb comes to mind when a rusty machine attempts to move forward on something. Crank perhaps.

The medical case for cannabis made its way in the Ontario Court of Appeal in R. v. Parker. The Supreme Court in R. v. Malmo-Levine and R. v. Caine in 2003 confirmed that the federal government had the authority to criminalize cannabis. This was unanimous, which is equivalent to the court saying, “Of course, the feds can legislate this. What have you been smoking?”

The decriminalization initiative crept forward with the Le Dain report in 1972, suggesting the removal of criminal penalties. In 2003, then-Prime Minister Jean Chrétien did attempt to decriminalize possession by legislating that 15 grams and less would only result in a fine. However, this doobie attempt eventually went out. Dubious. I meant dubious.

On a bit of a somber note, we need to mention Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Written in 1931, Huxley describes a dystopian future based on technology and drugs, particularly Soma: “The perfect drug. . . . Euphoric, narcotic, pleasantly hallucinant. . . . All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects. . . . Take a holiday from reality whenever you like, and come back without so much as a headache or a mythology. . . . Stability was practically assured.” That is great writing. I wish I paid more attention in high school. Sorry, Mr. Pratt.

In any event, Huxley was not so much writing about cannabis as about humankind’s ability to be distracted from looking out for tyranny. So, perhaps in between partaking, we should keep watching U.S. President Donald Trump and keep a firmer bloodshot eye on Ontario Premier Doug Ford. Notwithstanding.

  • You mischaracterised the argument in Malmo-Levine

    David Malmo-Levine
    Malmo-Levine was primarily an attempt to see the court recognize "tastes and pursuits" as rights that follow political rights - page 15 of "On Liberty" - but the court refused to discuss the matter, saying to the appellant "perhaps we're all convinced" at closing arguments. They claimed that the harm principle wasn't a principal of fundamental justice even though it can be found in the Levelers Constitution and the French Declaration of the rights of man, and Mill's On Liberty.