Celebrating 420: The History of Cannabis in Canada

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April 20th, also known as 420 has become an important day within the cannabis movement. In honour of the international day of celebrating cannabis, we take a look back at the history of cannabis culture and legalization in Canada.

Cannabis and Canada’s First Nations.

North America has a long and storied history with cannabis. Some historians believe cannabis existed in North America long before European settlers arrived. A collection of 500-year-old pipes were discovered in the area of Morriston, Ontario (a small town north west of Toronto) containing resin scrapings with traces of smoked hemp and tobacco. Historians believe the indigenous people in Southern Ontario had been smoking cannabis for recreational and/or spiritual purposes.

Some historians are skeptical cannabis was part of North American indigenous culture. These historians believe there is no evidence the indigenous peoples introduced the European settlers to cannabis or its psychoactive and medicinal properties.

Today, First Nations demand the federal government amend the Cannabis Act rules to allow for more autonomy of the industry in their territories, something expected in Canada’s recognition of nation-to-nation diplomacy. Under the current regulations, Indigenous peoples must follow the provincial laws when it comes to opening cannabis stores on nation territory. The Alderville First Nation outside of Peterborough are one of the bands demanding a change in regulation. They want the right to license and regulate cannabis stores and producers on their own land while avoiding the fear of police raids. Each First Nation group treats cannabis differently and some are preparing their own unique regulations for the plant and the industry in their jurisdictions.

Cannabis and North America’s European Settlers.

The earliest record of cannabis and  European settlers in Canada occurred in 1606. It came through a Frenchman named Louis Hebert, who was the first apothecary and farmer to settle in New France. Records indicate settlers did not discover the psychoactive properties of cannabis until the end of the 19th century. At the time, cannabis was mostly grown for its use as a fibre in clothing and other materials. This form of cannabis is known as hemp, which is a variety of cannabis sativa. It typically produces less than 0.2% THC and is used for industrial purposes instead of consumption.

Fast-forward to the 1800’s, hemp was grown to help stimulate the economy in Eastern Canada. Hemp was cultivated in Lower Canada and the first crops were subsidized by the colonial government in Quebec. In 1801, the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada handed out hemp seeds to farmers on behalf of the United Kingdom.

There were seven hemp mills in Canada by 1824 and many were funded by the government at the time. However, near the end of the 19th century, cotton production overtook industrial hemp production due to its lower labour costs.

Powerful cotton companies, established newspaper and lumber organizations saw hemp as a threat to their business and lobbied against its production across North America. This effort was successful, and the United States federal government enacted the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937, which rendered possession and transfer of cannabis illegal, excluding medical and industrial uses. This new act implemented an excise tax on all sales of hemp across the country. The Canadian government followed suit in an even stricter fashion and completely prohibited production of cannabis and hemp under the Opium and Narcotics Act on the first of August 1938. This day marked the beginning of the prohibition of cannabis in Canada.

Early Medicinal Cannabis in Canada.

Between 1840 and the criminalization of cannabis, history records a variety of medicinal practices throughout North America. Over 100 papers were published in  medical literature during this time detailing the different therapeutic uses for cannabis. The plant was utilized as an ingredient in medicines and concoctions intended to treat a wide variety of ailments including rabies, rheumatism, epilepsy, tetanus and muscle seizures. Cannabis extracts and tinctures were available for purchase over-the-counter in drug stores and pharmacies, through mail-order services and even in Sears and Eaton’s catalogues. Doctors frequently recommended these products and there were many advertisements for them. The public was generally comfortable with the idea of cannabis as a medicinal ingredient. This lasted until cannabis and hemp became illegal in August of 1938. At the time the plant was criminalized, most Canadians had never heard of cannabis and only a very small number of them had ever used it for recreational purposes.

Early Recreational Cannabis in Canada.

According to historical records of the Senate of Canada, there are no reliable accounts of the recreational or spiritual use of cannabis in Canada before the 1930’s. This is a significant amount of time after non-medicinal cannabis use was reported in the United States. Even when cannabis consumption was reported in the country, there were only 25 marijuana-related convictions in the 16-year span between 1930-1946 in all of Canada. ([Source])

Cannabis gained popularity as a recreational drug of choice in Canada in the 1960’s. The numbers rose dramatically from 20 cannabis-related convictions in 1962 to over 2,300 cases in 1968 and 12,000 in 1972. This rapid growth in popularity can be attributed to the psychedelic “hippie” movement and counter-culture which was widespread throughout most of North America starting in the late 60’s.

Another reason for this spike in popularity of cannabis in Canada was a change in the immigration laws. During this time period, Canada opened their doors to a large number of people coming from areas with existing practices (whether medical, spiritual or recreational) with the cannabis plant. These new immigrants brought their cannabis knowledge and rituals with them and the popularity of the plant proliferated throughout the country.

Medical Cannabis in Canada.

Canadian medical marijuana patients and producers alike have one very important person to thank for pushing legalization forward. Terrence Parker is a Toronto-based man who uses cannabis in order to control his epileptic seizures. Parker had tried a number of conventional medications and undergone surgery to help with his condition, but he found consuming cannabis was the only effective treatment for his symptoms. Between 1987 and 1997, he was arrested and charged a number of times for the illegal possession of cannabis. However, during his court case in 1997, an Ontario Court judge ruled individuals should have the right to access essential medical therapies without the fear of arrest.

On December 10, 1997, Terrence Parker officially became the first Canadian to be exempted from arrest for the possession or cultivation of cannabis for medical purposes. In 2000, the case was appealed but the Court of Appeal for Ontario upheld the decision. The court ruled against  Canada’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (the act making cannabis illegal) citing it violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Court then ordered the Federal Government to clarify the laws  surrounding medical cannabis possession and cultivation in the country.

In July of 2001, Health Canada responded to this ruling by creating a licensing process allowing patients to access medical cannabis by growing their own or by purchasing it from Health Canada directly. These patients had to prove they could not find relief through conventional treatments and required an authorization from a doctor. This new program was known as the Canadian Medical Marihuana Access Regulations (or the MMAR).

After a few years, the MMAR program eventually transformed into the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR) in July of 2013. Under this new program, Health Canada continued to regulate cannabis in the country but stopped distributing it themselves. The MMPR required patients to obtain their medicine through government-licensed producers. Health Canada adopted the responsibility of ensuring product quality and facility safety of these new privately-owned licensed producers. This marks the beginning of Canada’s commercial cannabis market and economy.

In 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada reviewed the 2009 case of Owen Smith, a British Columbia-based baker who was charged for possessing cannabis-infused edible products, massage oils and lip balms. The court ruled the restriction of medical patients’ access to only dried flower violated their rights to take their medicine in the form they prefer. This decision opened the door for Canadian Licensed Producers to be permitted to produce oils and other derivative products.

In February of 2016, Allard v. Canada led to the evolution of  the medical cannabis system in the country once again. The plaintiffs were Neil Allard and three other cannabis patients from British Columbia claimed the MMPR program violated Canadians rights to reasonable access to cannabis for medicinal purposes because the system did not allow them to grow their own plants at home. The Federal Court of Canada ruled in the plaintiff’s favour, winning patients the right to grow.

The new revised law was known as the ACMPR, or the Access To Cannabis For Medical Purposes Regulations. The role of Health Canada and doctors remained the same under this program. The only substantial change was patients could now grow their own cannabis or designate someone to grow for them. The number of plants these individuals could cultivate depends on how many grams they were prescribed by a doctor. One gram of prescribed daily cannabis flower allowed a patient to cultivate up to five indoor plants or two outdoor plants. Canada still has a medicinal cannabis program but the ACMPR was repealed and replaced by the Cannabis Regulations on October 17th, 2018.

Cannabis Activism, Recreational Legalization & 420.

The first known cannabis-related activist demonstration in Canada occurred in 1971 in Vancouver’s Gastown neighbourhood. The event was labelled a “smoke-in” and attracted a few hundred cannabis activists to the area.

The first 4/20 protest in Canada occurred in Vancouver’s Victory Square Park in 1995. Just over 1,000 people attended the event, which was organized by Danna Rozek and Cindy Lassu (who were both employees at one of Canada’s earliest compassion clubs). The yearly Vancouver festival has been crowned the longest running 4/20 event in the world. The protest celebrated its 25th anniversary this past year in 2019.

April 20th, known as 4/20, has historically been a day of protest and activism by the Canadian cannabis community. Large gatherings occur all across the country, from Vancouver’s Sunset Beach/Victory Square Park to Toronto’s Dundas Square/Nathan Phillips Square to Montreal’s Mont Royal and more. Canadians join together on this day to celebrate the cannabis plant and fight for its freedom.

4/20 celebrations in 2020 may be different than the past because of COVID-19 concerns and mandated social distancing. Learn how to enjoy 4/20 from the comfort of your home here.

Cannabis Legalization in Canada.

In 2015, Justin Trudeau became the Prime Minister of Canada and led the Liberal Party to a majority government victory. In his campaign platform was the promise to legalize cannabis for recreational purposes across the country. After being voted in, he re-affirmed this campaign promise and the federal government began working on the new legalisation.

Bill C-45 was introduced to parliament on April 13th, 2017. The bill initially proposed to legalize recreational cannabis by July of 2018. The bill was given the green light by the Senate on March 22nd but proceeded to undergo further review by various committees. On June 20th, the Prime Minister announced recreational cannabis would be fully legalized in October of 2018.

On October 17th,2018, Canada made history by becoming the first G7 country to legalize recreational cannabis for adult-use. The products made available through this regulation were fresh and dried cannabis flower, plants, seeds and oils. This marked the beginning of Canada’s legal recreational cannabis consumer market.

Cannabis 2.0 and Beyond.

In June 2019, the Canadian government announced additional amendments to the Cannabis Regulations to allow for the legal production and sale of cannabis edibles, extracts and topicals. In line with The Cannabis Act, these amendments aim to reduce the risks of cannabis derivative products. These amendments took effect on the one-year anniversary of recreational legalization, October 17th, 2019. Click here to learn more about Cannabis 2.0..

What next? The Future of Cannabis in Canada.

The future of cannabis in Canada is yet to be seen. Supreme Cannabis is endlessly grateful for all of the activists, lawyers, consumers, politicians and entrepreneurs that helped forge the cannabis movement to what it is today. We are excited to be an active participant in shaping the future of the industry and working to improve global well-being with cannabis.

Celebrating 420: The History of Cannabis in Canada

April 20th, also known as 420 has become an important day within the cannabis movement. In honour of the international day of celebrating cannabis, we take a look back at the history of cannabis culture and legalization in Canada.

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