Canada’s legal history of drugs has evolved since the late 1800s, coming almost full circle with current calls to decriminalize possession for personal use.
As I write this short history of the criminalization of drugs in Canada, the federal and British Columbia governments have announced that in early 2023 they will stop charging persons who are found in possession of small amounts of illegal substances for personal consumption. As will be seen, this change in policy seems to bring Canada closer to its position of just over a century ago. Until the early 1900’s, it was not illegal to possess and use most of the drugs we have spent the last century battling through our courts and criminal justice systems.
The Opium Wars and Anti-Chinese Policies
During the time of early European contact and exploration of North America, there were few, if any, laws against the possession and use of drugs and similar substances. People freely used opium and coca (from which cocaine is derived), which were also often found in medicines, teas and wines. (Fun fact: when it was first created in the late 1800’s, the earliest forms of Coca-Cola contained a small amount of cocaine – some estimates say up to nine grams in a glass.)
During the same period when Great Britain was settling Canada, it was also fighting two wars with China commonly referred to as the Opium Wars. Contrary to the “modern” approach by Britain and Canada to the drug trade, Britain was at war with China to be able to continue to import opium from India into China. The Chinese regime understood the social and other forms of havoc and upheaval caused by many of its citizens being addicted to opium. They opposed British efforts to continue the drug trade. Britain was, effectively, in the position of modern drug cartels, which resort to violence and terror to protect their income from the sale of highly addictive and dangerous substances.
As certain religious beliefs (mainly, Protestantism) became more influential, Canadian society began to view drugs differently. Ironically, given Britain’s role as a major drug trafficker in 1800’s China, Canadian efforts to control and eliminate drug use were inextricably linked to racist, anti-Chinese immigration laws and policies. Often Chinese immigrants were portrayed and seen as a threat to the morals and values of white-Canadian society. Among many stereotypes associated with Chinese men (who were often brought to Canada to work on the railroad), many believed they engaged in rampant opium-smoking and thus significantly tempted other sectors of the population.
Especially in the west, racial tensions grew during the early years of the twentieth century. Things culminated in a race riot aimed at Vancouver’s Asian community in 1907. Then-Deputy Minister of Labour Mackenzie King went to Vancouver to review the situation. He met with anti-opium activists, among others, and returned to Ottawa intending to promote the prohibition of drugs. His views and efforts set the stage for Canada’s approach to drugs and narcotics ever since.
The Opium Act and its Successors
In 1908, with little or no debate, Parliament passed the Opium Act. This Act prohibited the manufacture, sale or importation of opium for non-medical purposes. In 1911, the Act was replaced by another that included cocaine and morphine as prohibited substances, and expanded police powers in this area. In 1920, Parliament passed a new law – the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act. One year later, Mackenzie King became Prime Minister and created the Narcotic Division within the federal government. He placed the Royal Canadian Mounted Police at the head of efforts to stamp out and punish the illegal drug trade. In 1922, the Act was expanded again to include cannabis among the list of prohibited drugs and to add lengthy prison sentences, believing this would deter the drug trade.
This approach treated any involvement with the drug trade, even only as an addict, as a serious criminal offence. And it continued for about the next 80 years. Some of the first calls to view drug addiction as a health problem instead of a crime came as early as the 1950’s. However, the government largely ignored them for the rest of the twentieth century.
In the 1960’s, drug use became even more widespread, and, sometimes, more open. Vancouver, being the site of the first moves towards prohibition, was again at the forefront of continuing efforts to ban the drug trade. A 1971 “smoke-in” event staged by mainly young persons was met with significant police violence, including the use of police dogs and horses, and beatings with batons. Meanwhile, government continued to ignore and reject growing calls for change. These calls included recommendations from a government commission that pushed for treating addiction as a health problem, removing cannabis possession as a crime, and less severe punishments. Possession of as little as a single “joint” of marijuana continued to result in a criminal record, with all the restrictions (as to employability, travel and so on) that flowed from that.
For many years, it seemed Canada enacted and followed drug policies with the United States foremost in mind. Many of the steps taken in Canada mirrored those south of the border. However, in the 1990’s, drug activists began to take note of, and draw inspiration from, what was happening in Europe. Other places were creating safe injection sites and safe needle exchange programs (often as a response to the AIDS and HIV epidemics), with some positive results.
Not content to wait for government action while addicts were dying, groups in Canada began to organize their own needle exchange programs and safe injection sites. Once again, Vancouver played a leading role in change in this area. In the early 2000’s, the city permitted the first such locations to open and begin operations. An attempt by the Stephen Harper Conservatives to force city-backed supervised injection sites to close was defeated in the courts. Nonetheless, his government continued to pass legislation aimed at making drug-related sentences even harsher.
Back to Legalization
In 2015, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals defeated the Harper Conservatives, and formed their first national government. Trudeau first said he favoured legalizing cannabis possession during his campaign for the leadership of the Liberals, and he continued to argue for legalization in his election campaign. Once in power, he started moving towards passing the Cannabis Act, which came into effect in October 2018. Under this legislation, it is no longer against the law to possess, or to purchase from a licensed dealer, small amounts of cannabis (in various forms) for personal use.
The calls to reconsider Canada’s response to the health issues posed by drug use have continued. In spring 2022, the federal and British Columbia governments announced that for three years starting at the end of January 2023, that province will have an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (the current federal law criminalizing the possession and sale of controlled drugs and narcotics). This means persons found in possession of small amounts of most illegal substances will not be charged or prosecuted. Largely in response to the significant human costs of the recent opioid crisis in Canada, the focus will be on the health issues and concerns for addicts. Persons found with small amounts of drugs for personal use will not be arrested and jailed. Instead, they will be offered information and support about how to safely address and deal with their addictions.
We are not quite back to the situation of the early 1900’s, where there were almost no restrictions or limits on the substances Canadians could consume and use. But we have travelled in a bit of a circle. Canada tried without success to control and stop the sale and consumption of intoxicating and similar chemicals and drugs through the police, the courts and our jails. And now we seem to be close to a paradigm shift towards seeing the challenges posed by substances and addictions to them as health concerns and not criminal conduct deserving of harsh punishment.
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The information in this article was correct at time of publishing. The law may have changed since then. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LawNow or the Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta.
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