The Little Herb That Could

A Brief Tour Through Cannabis’ Journey to Legalization in Canada

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When cannabis becomes legal for recreational use tomorrow in Canada, it will be a milestone in a long journey through the legal system for this Little Herb That Could.

The star of the day, cannabis - commonly referred to as marijuana, pot, weed, and a variety of other nicknames - is no newcomer. It actually existed long before Canada became a country, and it hasn’t always been illegal, either.  

Did Plato write “The Republic” enhanced by cannabis?

Cannabis has been gallivanting around far longer than modern governments have been debating its fate in our society. Archaeologists have found evidence of its use dating all the way back to prehistoric times. Written records of cannabis have been uncovered as far back as 2727 BCE in the Chinese empire. Cannabis has adventured across Asia, Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, being utilized by various religious sects along the way - from Norse mythology to Hinduism to even certain sects of Islam and Christianity.

Greek historian Herodotus records its earliest written history in the western world in 440 BCE noting its use in steam baths by the Scythians. Classical Greeks and Romans were known to use it, so it is entirely possible Plato or even Socrates himself indulged in a toke.

Cannabis journeys to the New World

Like many explorers, cannabis eventually couldn’t resist the lure of the New World. The Spanish were the first to import cannabis to Chile, ostensibly for its use as fiber. The herb made its way up to North America initially in hemp form to be used for making rope, paper, and even clothes.

Early North Americans didn’t take long to discover its other uses, though: marijuana was reportedly brought into the southern United States to be used as an “intoxicant” by Caribbean sailors and Mexican immigrants in the early 1900s. Not long after, it began to experience resistance and the trend of banning marijuana began. One wonders, though, whether the American southern border cities and states that began the bans were resisting the substance, or the types of people that brought it; unfortunately yet perhaps unsurprisingly, evidence suggests the latter.

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Cannabis makes its Canadian debut

In the early 1800s, long before our American neighbours began busying themselves with banning cannabis, Canada - technically “Upper Canada,” still a British-run colony at the time - was already exploring cannabis’ less controversial uses in agriculture under the direction of the Lieutenant Governor. Hemp seeds were distributed to farmers in order to stimulate industry; machinery was used and new types of machinery developed to process hemp. Things were looking good for cannabis’ new life in the Great White North: unfortunately the honeymoon stage of cannabis in Canada was not to last.

Cannabis’ Fall from Grace

Over a century after its debut in Canada, cannabis fell onto some hard times. First of all, the cotton industry was quickly displacing the hemp industry as the fiber of choice. Secondly, the negative attitudes about the other uses of cannabis were creeping northward from America, and westward as well from Europe, and Canada was under pressure from the U.N.’s predecessor the League of Nations to join the trend of cannabis bans.

Cannabis was added to the list of prohibited substances in Canada in 1923, however it was not until 1930 that it attracted any real official attention, and not until 1937 that anything was done about it: in 1937 Canadian police made their first seizure of marijuana. Still, cannabis grew in popularity even as arrests increased from a couple a year to over 2000 in the late 1960s.

Cannabis Fights Back

This wasn’t cannabis’ first rodeo. The Little Herb That Could has been around a lot longer than Canada, the New World, and even Socrates. Cannabis found some new allies in the early 1970s in Vancouver. In 1971 the Gastown Riot took place, which was actually a lot more peaceful than other riots Vancouver has become known for (hockey riots come to mind). Hundreds gathered peacefully in Vancouver’s historic Gastown to hold a “pro-cannabis smoke-in.” was held in Vancouver’s Gastown district. In what must have been a classic Canadian scene, the crowd was dispersed peacefully by Mounties on horseback.

Despite a report in 1972 where a government commission recommended the decriminalization of cannabis, the tide didn’t begin to turn really until the turn of the century. In 1996 a man named Terrence Parker was arrested for growing and using cannabis to control his epileptic seizures. He fought back with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and won: in 2000 the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled cannabis prohibition to be unconstitutional. Thus began a series of lawmaking battles and legal changes that resulted in cannabis being decriminalized for medical use, and finally leading to tomorrow’s landmark legal change to legalize cannabis for recreational use in Canada.

Cannabis still has a long journey ahead as the legal, societal, and medical worlds continue to adjust to its presence. However as any good traveller knows, it’s about the journey, not the destination.


Join High Definition Tours for a chance to experience the journey of cannabis up close: from exploring historic protest sites like Vancouver’s Gastown, to visiting growers and dispensaries at the forefront of the developing recreational cannabis industry. Click here (link to tour page or some other info page?) to learn more.

References and Resources to learn more:

Rough, Lisa. “The History of Cannabis in Canada.” Leafly: https://www.leafly.com/news/canada/history-cannabis-canada accessed October 15, 2018.

Barcott, Bruce. “Smoke Trails - and Trials.” Time Magazine Special Edition: Marijuana Goes Main Street: pp 8-17.

“Cannabis, Coca, & Poppy: Nature’s Addictive Plants.” DEA Museum: https://www.deamuseum.org/ccp/cannabis/history.html accessed October 15, 2018.

Wikipedia:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cannabis#cite_note-87

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cannabis_in_Canada

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legal_history_of_cannabis_in_Canada

Accessed October 15, 2018.