10/15/2018 07:06 EDT | Updated 10/15/2018 11:25 EDT

Canada Goes From Weed Prohibition To Legalization In 95 Years

Time to revisit the mysterious origin of Canada's anti-pot law.

OTTAWA Ninety-five years of marijuana prohibition comes to an end Wednesday.

The change makes Canada the second country in the world (after Uruguay) to legalize recreational pot — and the first G7 nation to do so. Here's a throwback to Ottawa's hot-and-cold-and-hot again relationship with weed.


There's no fantastic story for how marijuana became prohibited in Canada. The origins of this decision trace back to a single statement by health minister Henri-Séverin Béland, according to the Library of Parliament.

Library of Parliament
Portrait of Henri Sévérin Béland.

During a sitting of the Committee of the Whole to review the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act, Beland simply stated, "There is a new drug in the schedule" — pointing MPs to the addition of cannabis to the list of prohibited drugs.

There are no records available from the time that show evidence of any substantive parliamentary debate about the physical and mental effects of marijuana.


Nine years after marijuana was first banned in Canada, records show the first substantial pot debate among parliamentarians was over the manufacture, sale, and distribution of medicines containing "small quantities" of banned drugs.

The topic captures the interest of parliamentarians, prompting one clueless but curious Liberal MP to ask the health minister, "What is Cannabis sativa?" The health minister at the times responds by saying he believes it's used in India and is known as hashish.

"There is no objection to the use of it," the health minister said at the time.

Parliament OKs small quantities of cannabis and hemp for use in medicines.


Influenced by American media's depiction of marijuana's effects as mind-altering and life-destroying, Parliamentarians' attitudes about the drug shift.

Ottawa introduces a law prohibiting people from growing marijuana without an official health department permit. Cannabis crops grown for research by the department of agriculture in Ottawa and near Montreal are destroyed.

June 1972

A surge in marijuana use in the '60s prompts Pierre Elliott Trudeau's Liberal government to appoint a royal commission to explore the non-medical use of drugs.

The Le Dain report, named after inquiry chairman Gerald Le Dain (former dean of Osgoode Hall Law School), concluded with a majority of the commissioners that there is zero science to back criminal sanctions for marijuana possession.

"It's not to encourage the use of it, it's to reduce the impact of the criminal law," Le Dain explained.

March 1983

Ottawa launches a $600,000 ad campaign targeting teens with the message to "stay real" by laying off marijuana until they're older.

Feb. 1, 2000

The federal Marijuana Party is founded by Marc-Boris St-Maurice with a singular mission: to reform the country's cannabis laws.

July 31, 2000

In R v. Parker, an Ontario Court of Appeal justice strikes down a blanket ban on medical marijuana, deeming it unconstitutional.

Terrence Parker, an epileptic man, argues marijuana helps reduce the incidence of seizures, offering him relief from his condition. Parker went to court to challenge criminal sanctions after being charged with marijuana possession.

The judge notes how marijuana has a very short history in Canada, and took a jab at prohibition's "embarrassing history based upon misinformation and racism." The court rules banning weed for medicinal purposes violates Charter rights.

July 2001

Following the Ontario Court of Appeal ruling, federal Liberal health minister Allan Rock introduces new regulations to allow people (with certain conditions) access to medical marijuana.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press
Former Health Minister Allan Rock, pictured here on Aug. 2, 2001, holds up a T-shirt proclaiming Flin Flon the marijuana growing capital of Canada after an inspection tour of an underground medicinal marijuana crop growing in the Trout Lake mine.

September 2002

A Senate special committee on illegal drugs publishes a report recommending the legalization of marijuana. Prohibition doesn't "bring about the desired reduction in cannabis consumption or problematic use," the report reads.

"If there was so much concern about public health based on how dangerous 'drugs' are, one has to wonder why tobacco and alcohol are not on the list of controlled substances."

The special committee also proposed a legalization model similar to alcohol; and recommended that the government grant amnesty to people "convicted of possession of cannabis under current or past legislation."

May 27, 2003

Jean Chretien's Liberal government introduces its marijuana depenalization legislation, Bill C-38, proposing a ticketing scheme (vs. enforcing criminal prosecution) to deal with small pot possession.

The bill dies when Chretien prorogues Parliament in November 2003.

Dec. 23, 2003

Canada's Supreme Court upholds the ban on small marijuana possession for the purpose of trafficking. Appellants argued their Charter rights were breached after incurring penalties for small possession. The court doesn't agree.

Richard Lam/The Canadian Press
David Malmo-Levine, pictured here on Dec. 23, 2003, watches with disappointment the Supreme Court of Canada's decision that possession of marijuana remains a crime on a television at the B.C. Marijuana Party in Vancouver.

The decision for R v. Malmo-Levine, written by Justices Ian Binnie and Charles Gonthier, concludes it's within Parliament's jurisdiction to criminalize small possession, but also hedges it may be high time to reform Canada's drug prohibition laws.

"Equally, it is open to Parliament to decriminalize or otherwise modify any aspect of the marihuana laws that it no longer considers to be good public policy," reads the ruling.

Feb. 12, 2004

After Chretien's retirement in December, the Liberal government under Prime Minister Paul Martin resurrected Bill C-38 and reintroduced it in the House as Bill C-10. But the bill, like its predecessor, was doomed.

The bill died after the House was dissolved on May 23, 2004 — throwing the country into a 36-day election campaign, causing Liberals to win a minority government, losing their previous majority.

Nov. 1, 2004

The Liberals introduce Bill C-17 (reincarnation of the failed Bill C-38 and Bill C-10 before it). They also introduce Bill C-16, proposing changes to Canada's impaired driving laws to complement its marijuana depenalization legislation.

Feb. 28, 2005

The leader of the federal Marijuana Party, Marc-Boris St-Maurice, announces he's leaving the party he co-founded to become a card-carrying member of the Liberal party.

"I believe that if any party will ever legalize marijuana in Canada, it is the Liberals," he said in a statement.

Jan. 23, 2006

Conservative Party Leader Stephen Harper leads his party to election victory, winning a minority mandate.

The Conservative government does not reintroduce Bill C-16 and C-17 in the House.

Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press
Conservative party leader Stephen Harper, pictured here on Jan. 23, 2006 with his wife Laureen and kids Ben and Rachel ,celebrate his minority government win in the Canadian federal election in Calgary.

Nov. 13, 2013

During a visit to a Brandon, Man. school, then-Liberal leader Justin Trudeau is asked a question by a student about marijuana. Trudeau responds by saying he's in favour of the legalizing and regulating the drug. Students applaud Trudeau for his answer.

Then-justice minister Peter MacKay criticized Trudeau's "bad policy" and "completely unacceptable and grossly inappropriate" comments at an elementary school (high school students had joined the assembly).

Nov. 20, 2013

On the eve of a byelection vote in Brandon-Souris, Stephen Harper, the prime minister at the time makes an unorthodox intervention. Residents there received a mailer claiming the Trudeau marijuana plan will make the drug "more accessible" to children. It's signed by Harper.

"This is the wrong message to send to our children," it read.

Oct. 1, 2015

Then-Liberal leader Justin Trudeau makes a campaign promise in Surrey, B.C. that his government would work "right away" on a policy to legalize marijuana.

Oct. 5, 2015

The Liberals unveil their full election platform, promising to "legalize, regulate, and restrict access to marijuana," arguing the current prohibition system doesn't work.

Oct. 19, 2015

The Liberals win a majority government.

Chris Wattie / Reuters
Justin Trudeau delivers his victory speech after Canada's federal election in Montreal on Oct. 19, 2015.

April 13, 2017

The government tables its long-awaited marijuana legalization legislation. Bill C-45 is introduced in the House of Commons by Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.

Nov. 27, 2017

Bill C-45 clears the House of Commons by a 200-82 vote at third reading.

Nov. 28, 2017

Bill C-45 is introduced in the Senate.

Dec. 1, 2017

Tory MP Marilyn Gladu delivers a poem in the House of Commons to criticize the government's cannabis legalization plans.

June 19, 2018

After being scrutinized by five Senate committees, senators pass Bill C-45.

June 21, 2018

Bill C-45 receives Royal Assent.

Oct. 17, 2018

Recreational marijuana is legalized in Canada.

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