By Alice Blunt

Canadians filled city streets on the night of October 16, 2018, in a party-like, New Year’s Eve-esque atmosphere, waiting for the stroke of midnight.  The reason? On October 17th, cannabis would be legal in Canada for recreational use.

Canada is the first G7 country and only the second country in the world to federally legalize marijuana; Uruguay legalized the production, sale, and consumption in 2013.  What is the history of cannabis use and legalization that brought about this momentous event, and what does cannabis legalization mean for Canada’s future?

Encouraging Hemp Crops to Criminalizing Cannabis Use

The road to legalization has been long, but cannabis wasn’t always a stigmatized crop in the Great North.  In fact, similar to what occurred in the United States, prior to 1900, the Canadian government actually encouraged farmers to cultivate hemp, a crop favored for its hardiness and relative ease to grow.  In 1801, the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada distributed hemp seeds to farmers, hoping to encourage the industry. However, by the turn of the next century, cotton production was more popular thanks to its less labor-intensive production process. Cannabis production fell significantly.

The government’s attitude towards cannabis also changed in the 20th century.  In 1923, cannabis was deemed illegal after the Narcotics Drug Act Amendment Bill included the Act to Prohibit the Improper Use of Opium and Other Drugs, the “other drugs” being cocaine, morphine, and cannabis.  However, cannabis use in the country was not widespread. The first seizure of cannabis by Canadian police was not until 1937 and between 1946 and 1961, cannabis accounted for only 2% of all drug arrests in Canada.

The Rise of Cannabis Use

The use of cannabis gained greater popularity in the 1960s, with the spread of the hippie counterculture movement.  In 1968, there were 2,300 cannabis convictions in the country, a new record for Canada. In 1969, the Canadian government, responding to this jump in general marijuana use, created the Royal Commission of Inquiry in the Non-Medical Use of Drugs, popularly known as the Le Dain Commission.  The Commission’s task was to investigate the non-medical uses of cannabis and recommend a course of appropriate action for the legal system. In 1972, the Le Dain Commission submitted its report, which recommended that the Canadian government remove criminal penalties for the use and possession of cannabis.  The report fell short of recommending legalization full stop, however. While the following two administrations discussed the Le Dain commission’s recommendations, no legal steps were taken to decriminalize pot.

Medical Marijuana Use Legalization

After a leveling off of marijuana use in the 1980s, the herb rose in popularity again in the 1990s. Canadians were not only using marijuana for recreational purposes, however. In 1996, Terrance Parker was arrested for cannabis possession, cultivation, and trafficking after he grew cannabis to help control his epileptic seizures.  He appealed to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and in 2000, the Court of Appeals ruled the national prohibition of cannabis use had a detrimental effect on Parker’s right to life, liberty, and security, and cannabis prohibition was therefore deemed unconstitutional.  Shortly after the ruling, the Canadian government created the country’s first medical marijuana law, the Marihuana for Medical Access Regulations (MMAR). MMAR allowed licensed medical marijuana patients to grow their own cannabis or buy it from licensed growers. It was a big step in the fight to legalize marijuana

Recreational Marijuana Use Legalization

Throughout the ensuing decades, several attempts were made to decriminalize marijuana for recreational use, but the bills failed to get the legislative support they needed. In 2013, the MMAR was replaced by the MMPR, the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations Act.  The MMPR was powerful and significant enough to create a commercially-licensed industry towards the production and distribution of medical cannabis within Canada, as it no longer allowed for personal medical marijuana cultivation. It was challenged, however, in 2016 for just this reason and was revised again as the Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulation (ACMPR) to include a renewed allowance for personal medical marijuana cultivation.

Meanwhile, public support for the legalization of marijuana for recreational use spread.  A 2017 poll conducted by researchers at Dalhousie University in Halifax found that 68 percent of the population supported the legalization of marijuana, with the bulk of that support found in British Columbia and Ontario.  That same year, the Government of Canada proposed the Cannabis Act, which would legalize the possession, use, cultivation, and purchase of restricted amounts of cannabis by people 18 years old and older. In October of 2018, this act became law and Canadians partied.

Future of Cannabis in Canada

As the law is still so new, it is challenging, at this point, to determine what effect cannabis legalization will have on Canada.  The new law states that adults are now allowed to possess, carry, and share with other adults up to 30 grams of dried cannabis — enough ganga to roll roughly 60 joints.  Adults are also permitted a maximum of four marijuana plants per household in most provinces. Significantly, the Canadian government has left it to the country’s 13 provinces and territories to enact the new legislation and establish their own rules, allowing slightly different regulations throughout the country.  

The nationwide legalization of marijuana in large part stems from a campaign promise by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who believed that legalizing marijuana would make it easier to keep pot away from underage users and would also cut down on marijuana-related crime within Canada. Only time will tell if these hopes become reality, but the world will certainly be watching.