Time To Right The Wrong
Anyone who has taken the time to read even a small amount of the information that has been published about cannabis sativa/indica or marijuana online and in special magazines and newspapers must wonder why a plant with so many documented healthful benefits was placed on the list of illegal drugs in the first place.T
he story of how cannabis indica was added to a list of banned substances by the federal government in 1923 is bothersome yet it is seldom if ever mentioned in discussions about the need to legalize and decriminalize it.
In 1923 the Liberal government led by Prime Minister William Lyon McKenzie King introduced in parliament an Act to Prohibit the Use of Opium and Other Drugs. Herb Beland was health minister and it is understood that he told parliament that the bill was just a consolidation of legislation that had been passed over previous years with a few changes.
According to historians, there is no record of any debate of the act in Hansard, the official parliamentary record.
With the passage of the act, Canada became one of the first countries in the world to make smoking marijuana illegal. It was not until 1937 that the United States followed suit and banned its use.
The only drugs on the Canadian list before the additions were opium, morphine, cocaine and eucaine (a local anesthetic used as a substitute for cocaine). Three new drugs were added to the list: codeine, heroin and “cannabis indica (Indian hemp) or hashish”.
Hansard shows that Beland told parliament, “There is a new drug in the schedule” when in fact there were three.
On May 3, 1923, the Senate reviewed the legislation. Raaoul Dandurand, Liberal Senate leader, is on record as having stated, “There is only one addition to the schedule: Cannabis Indica (Indian hemp or hasheesh)”.
According to the authors of a book, Panic and Indifference: The Politics of Canada’s Drug Laws, the narcotics division of the health department of the day has draft copies of the bill on file that make no mention of cannabis. However, the words “Cannabis Indica (Indian hemp) or hashish” were found in a note attached to a carbon copy. There is no record of who might have attached the note, but both houses of parliament agreed to the addition without question.
How did Canadians who used cannabis at the time respond to the ban? Were the police suddenly faced with making arrests for possession or abuse?
According to historian Catherine Carstairs at the University of Guelf, author of a book called Jailed for Possession: Illegal Drug Use, Regulation and Power in Canada 1920-1961—a social history of drug use in Canada—there were few incidents involving cannabis users in the years following the passage of the act.
What information about cannabis might have influenced Prime Minister King and his colleagues prior to the passage of the act?
It is highly likely that the government was influenced by a series of biased and sensational articles written by Emily Murphy and published by Maclean’s Magazine. Murphy, a suffragette, Canada’s first female police magistrate judge, and the leader of the Irish Orange Order in Canada wrote the articles under the name “Janey Canuck”.
The publication of a book called The Black Candle, written by Murphy and published in 1922, may also have had a strong influence. The book was written with the sole purpose of pressuring the government to pass stricter drug laws.
The director of the federal division of narcotic control at the time, Colonel Shaman, might also have had the greater influence on the decision when he moved to have cannabis added to Canada’s list of controlled drugs because the League of Nations was thinking of international control.
The tragedy in this story is that Canadians have been subjected to a law that had its beginnings under questionable circumstances 92 years ago.
After 92 years it’s time to right the wrong.