The Current

The ban on cannabis in Canada is ending — do you know how it started?

With an era coming to an end this Wednesday, the host of CBC's On Drugs podcast explains how politics and fear drove the early days of cannabis prohibition in Canada.

Canadians started to discover marijuana nearly 40 years after it was outlawed, says CBC's Geoff Turner

A 95-year prohibition will come to an end this summer when Canada legalizes recreational cannabis use. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Originally broadcast on Feb. 22, 2018.

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A 95-year history of cannabis prohibition is about to end when recreational marijuana in Canada becomes legal. The fight has been long, but do you know how the ban came about?

According to Geoff Turner, the host of CBC podcast On Drugs, the story is fuzzy. 

The most popular explanation for the ban concerns Emily Murphy, one of the famous five Canadian suffragists who fought and won the right to have women declared "persons" under the law in 1929.

Five Alberta women who fought to have Canadian women declared "persons" are honoured today.

Prior to this, Murphy wrote The Black Candle in 1922, a collection of articles about drugs that had already been published in Maclean's magazine.

The book includes a seven-page chapter on cannabis titled Marijuana: the New Menacewhich quotes the then-chief of the Los Angeles police as stating people on the drug 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."

At the time, public conversation about marijuana was non-existent, but some people say Canadians — including policymakers — rushed to ban cannabis as a result of Murphy's book.

University of Guelph historian Catherine Carstairs doesn't agree. She thinks the facts just don't add up.

"I don't think Emily Murphy is at fault for the ban of cannabis in Canada. I mean certainly, she had a very deleterious impact on the lives of drug users in Canada. She spearheaded a moral panic about drug use in Canada in the early 1920s. But it's a 400-page book and there's one, seven-page chapter about marijuana in it," Carstairs explained.

Emily Murphy, a Canadian suffragist, write a book about drugs called The Black Candle. (Wikimedia)

There is no record of parliamentary debate or evidence that cannabis was a problem in Canada. The boring truth, according to Turner's research, was at the time Canada was starting to co-ordinate drug policy with other countries, who were all banning cannabis — so we did too.

Prohibition in effect

"Funnily enough when you ban something that nobody is actually using, nothing much happens. In fact, the first conviction for cannabis possession wasn't until 1937 — so 14 years after the drug was criminalized," Turner told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"As late as 1961 there were only 21 police-reported cannabis offences in all of Canada."

So what changed?

Perception of the drug. In the '30s, the U.S. war against cannabis fed the media lurid and violent stories of marijuana users gone wild, associating the drug to a counterculture movement that rejected conventional values.

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Then came the '60s, the decade when attitudes toward the drug shifted. The more people talked of the dangers of marijuana, the more alluring it became.

"Nearly 40 years after it is outlawed, Canadians started to actually discover marijuana," said Turner.

"As late as 1964, there were only 39 arrests for cannabis possession in all of Canada. But by 1967 that number was up to 431, and by 1971 there were 8,389 police-reported incidents involving cannabis."

In 1977 the number rose to 50,168 and except for a dip toward the late '80s and early '90s, Turner said, "that's roughly around the number that it would remain per year up to the present day."

So it's taken a long time, as Turner puts it, to have "enough marijuana actually being used to make use of the law."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

This segment was produced by The Current's Documentary Editor Joan Webber.