Root Down: History Of Cannabis In Canada


Cannabis use in Canada has soared in recent years. Since the legalization of medical marijuana in 2001 the cannabis culture, mostly in large cities, has boomed. Unfortunately, cannabis is still not legal for adult-use, even in the face of scientific research proving the myriad benefits of its use. The prohibition of cannabis and the persecution of its users is based far more on outdated drug policies and antiquated, xenophobic practices than on scientific evidence. In this four-part series, I’ll explore the Canadian history of cannabis from how it was first cultivated, the stigma it has endured and finally, to the current movement towards cannabis-positivity.

Early cannabis use, perhaps of indigenous forms of the plant, are neither well-recorded nor well-studied. The earliest reliable evidence of the cannabis plant in Canada is the prolific hemp production in the 19th century with seeds being brought in from abroad. Although, there is some evidence that shows native use of the cannabis plant similar to the use of tobacco in pre-colonial times. In 1801 hemp seeds were even distributed in Upper Canada by the government itself.

At that time the crop wasn’t used mainly for medicinal purposes, but rather for textiles, livestock feed, and a variety of other everyday household items such as paper and insulation. By 1823, there were six hemp mills in Canada. Then in 1841 W.B. O’Shaunghnessy introduced cannabis, rather than its lower-THC brother hemp, as a medicine to the Western World. It wasn’t uncommon for cannabis to be prescribed for any number of ailments including epilepsy, and even asthma for thousands of years in India, China, and Europe. O’Shaunghnessy did much the same in the 19th century.


The beginning of the end was due to an entirely different drug: opium. With Chinese immigration at the beginning of the 20th century arrived opium, and soon Canada was facing an epidemic. The Opium Prohibition Act of 1908 was an attempt to curb this recent social epidemic but unfortunately, this initial public disdain towards mind-altering substances (those understood or not) led to the eventual prohibition of cannabis.

It wasn’t until 1923 under the Narcotics Drug Act Amendment Bill that cannabis use became criminal. This was a pretty big turn from cannabis being pretty much ignored. Perhaps due to rising prevalence in youth culture or an increase in immigrants bringing cannabis to Canada as part of their culture, or both, or neither. Oddly enough, cannabis use boomed in the 1930’s regardless of this Bill and would continue to thrive as an underground culture through the next seventy-eight years of cannabis prohibition until medical legalization in 2001.

Next week our Root Down feature will look into the evolution of the underground cannabis culture in Canada including the psychedelic sixties and the activism of the seventies.

July 25, 2017

by Shasta Nelson

Profile photo of Shasta Nelson
Shasta Nelson is a California Native and a cannabis connoisseur. She's been involved in the industry at every level since she was a teenager. Currently she provides content for Roottie, DOPE Magazine, and Terpenes and Testing. She's also a creative writer, with a graphic novel underway.


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