While Canada may be one of the first countries in the world to legalize cannabis across the board, it also has its fair share of murky cannabis history. As people fight for cannabis justice around the world, taking a look at Canada’s past of cannabis persecutions can provide some insight. After all, it’s clear to see that there were many driving forces in the criminalization of cannabis such as socio-economic background and race. In this week’s article, we delve into the history of cannabis persecutions, decriminalization, and how cannabis laws affect users today.
The Problematic Origin of Cannabis Criminalization
Like many movements towards criminalization, cannabis becoming illegal stemmed from a lack of understanding and external pressure. In Canada, this can be traced back to one figure known as a moral entrepreneur by the name of Emily Murphy. Murphy was a British judge whose xenophobic and sensationalist articles about cannabis and opium were published in 1920. As a figure of power, she was able to fearmonger and convince the government of the severity of the issue. By 1923, cannabis had been added to the prohibited substances list without so much as a public debate. Many would refer to this event as “the making of the law without a problem.”
Rising Cannabis Convictions
Until the 1960’s cannabis use was not common in Canada, despite what Murphy’s writings made some believe almost 40 years prior. However, it was in the 1960s that young, educated people of higher socioeconomic status, who were often white, began to consume cannabis. The law that had been enacted in the 1920s dictated that possessing a small amount of cannabis would result in 6 months in jail and a $1,000 fine. This law had long-term effects for individuals who were otherwise law-abiding citizens without a previous criminal record. As the law was often disregarded, the government put together a commission to research the issue and provide a solution.
A Push for Decriminalization
The LeDain Commission of Inquiry examined the issue for three years, holding public hearings across the country before publishing their findings in a 1972 report. The report suggested that the government should remove criminal penalties for cannabis possession, but did not recommend legalization. Despite the commissions’ efforts, the government at the time rejected the proposal to decriminalize cannabis, thus leading to a slew of persecutions.
Three decades later, in 2002, Parliament created two committees to review the issue of illicit drugs in Canada. The House committee recommended the decriminalization of cannabis and personal cultivation in small amounts, whereas The Senate suggested that cannabis be legalized. The Senate also went on to acknowledge how prohibition could cause social harm, as well as a violation of cannabis user’s rights. Despite The Senate’s research and efforts, it was not until 2017 that cannabis would be fully legalized.
Shocking Statistics on Cannabis Persecutions in Canada
While cannabis may be legal now, it’s important to look at how many lives have been affected by the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act of 1996. When this act was in place, about 60,000 Canadians were arrested annually for cannabis possession. Those arrested would later struggle with their ability to travel, obtain meaningful employment, and volunteer in the community. Furthermore, it’s crucial to note that many of these arrests were commonly people of colour.
According to Cannabis Amnesty’s report in 2019, in Toronto, black people are three times as likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white people. In the city of Halifax, black people are four times as likely to be arrested for cannabis possession. In Vancouver, indigenous people are seven times more likely to be arrested for possession than white people. Most shockingly, in Regina, indigenous people are nine times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession. As the numbers show, black and indigenous Canadians have been disproportionately affected by the cannabis stigma and subsequent convictions.