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Cannabis lawyer John Conroy has played a pivotal role in many of the most important legal battles in Canadian cannabis history. But why do we even have these legal battles to begin with? John shared some history with us.
In the early 1900s, the Chinese came here and built the railroads. A large community developed, especially on the west coast, including down the west coast of the United States. Drug prohibition started as a way to get rid of the Chinese. White people were saying that ‘yellow peril’ was getting women in their opium dens in Vancouver. Mackenzie King was minister of labor, and he passed the first Opium Narcotic Act in 1908. In that first decade of the 1900s, many Chinese were deported for possession of opium products. It was a way of controlling immigration and labor unrest.
Down south in the US, many Mormons had gone to Mexico and picked up the habit of using cannabis and brought it back, creating a big fuss in the Mormon Church about people using cannabis. So, Utah was the first US state to make cannabis illegal, and that was around 1910 to 1915. After that, there was another group of US states, the mid-west states – Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, and Montana, that was the next group. After that, the third group was Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, and New Jersey. These groups of states were passing state cannabis laws, since in the US criminal law is state-run. It's not federal like ours in Canada.
Around that time, our first magistrate, Emily Murphy, wrote a book called The Black Candle about drug addiction in 1922, and she claimed that smokers “became raving maniacs”. It appeared in Macleans magazine. As a result, cannabis was added to the schedule of illegal drugs listed in the act in 1923, which by this point was called the Opium Narcotics Act. It was added in order to “prohibit the improper use of opium and other drugs”, even though most Canadians didn’t know about its existence.
Cannabis joined opium, heroin, and cocaine on the list of prohibited drugs when it was added to a late draft of the bill — though it’s unclear why it was added or by whom. The prohibition of cannabis was not discussed in parliament and lawmakers had little knowledge of the drug. It was likely influenced by the 10 US states who had made it illegal. At the time, very little fuss was made about cannabis being added to the list. Later on, mandatory minimums began to be added and a few people were busted here and there, but it was rare. Between 1923 and 1965, only 270 possession offenses were reported.
In 2000, the Ontario Court of Appeal decided that prohibition was unconstitutional since it didn’t allow for medical use, and that began paving the way for medical regulation and eventually decriminalization. Both Jean Chretien and Paul Martin tried to pass legislation to decriminalize, but both failed. Under Stephen Harper, the government's position shifted and sentences got much harsher. In 2015, Trudeau’s government announced its intent to legalize cannabis.
Since October of 2018, we now have the Cannabis Act, separating it from the other drugs, and bringing us to where we are today. This is a huge milestone for an industry and medicine that has been wrongly demonized for so long.
However, we have more work to do, and we look forward to doing our part to help the journey be as smooth and positive as possible.
Want to see what else John Conroy had to say about the current legal state of the cannabis industry? Watch this episode of The State of Craft!
This article was written in tandem with Mike F.