Cannabis Prohibition & Morality

Where some feel the current global outrage is a new trend, others can point out to a legacy of systematic racism enforced by colonial powers. Cannabis prohibition embodies the battle between Western culture against Eastern influences and the struggle to suppress ethnic groups at home.

In the following article, we look at the systematic racism inherent in Cannabis prohibition through examining its relationship to Canada, the western perception of migrant cultures and the global sentiment towards cannabis.

The need to legalize cannabis stems from prohibition and its xenophobic history. Amidst international pressures and anti-immigration fears, Canada joined a chorus of nations outlawing what was once a precious commodity.

A Brief History of Cannabis in Canada

Cannabis in North America has an unclear past, fueled by the same inherent bias clouding much of cannabis history. Where some scholars contest "with few exceptions, cannabis has not penetrated significantly into many native religious beliefs and ceremonies” [1-109], others suggest, “there is some very good physical evidence that indicates cannabis played a part in some of the native cultures prior to the arrival of Columbus.”[1-105] Some of the physical evidence includes Bill Fitzgerald's discovered 500-year-old pipes from Morriston, Ontario containing “traces of hemp and tobacco that is five times stronger than the cigarettes smoked today.”[1-105] Indigenous relationships to cannabis becomes increasingly difficult to study as “unfortunately much of the religion and culture of the aboriginal peoples of the western hemisphere was destroyed or driven underground by the European invaders.”[1-110]

The earliest known evidence comes from New France with Louis Hebert, Champlain’s apothecary, introducing cannabis to North American white settlers in 1606. [1] In Eastern Canada, hemp was grown under the French regime, becoming the first crop to be subsidized by the government and contributing to the growth of early Canada. [1] As the British began to set sails, royal decrees from King Henry, King James and Queen Elizabeth commanded colonists to produce hemp under fear of stiff penalties, [1, 2]

In 1841, W.B. O'Shaughnessy of Scotland was the first to introduce cannabis to Western medicine after studying its use in India. Between 1840-1900 cannabis gained popularity in medicinal practice throughout North America. With more than one hundred papers published in the Western medical literature, physicians began to prescribe cannabis for a variety of conditions from rabies, rheumatism, epilepsy, tetanus to use as a muscle relaxant; eventually making its way to drug stores to be sold over the counter. [3]

Nevertheless, technological advancements in medicine, cotton production, synthetic textiles and wood pulp at the end of the 19th century led to the decline of Cannabis for industrial and medical use. [4] The death knell of cannabis as an industrial crop came In 1937 as the United States passed the Marijuana Tax Law, followed by the Canadian government in 1938 ultimately prohibiting production of cannabis under the Opium and Narcotics Act.

Stoking the Fires of Prohibition

The period of colonialism led to the expansion of our cultural knowledge as traditions and practices from the East made its way to the Western world. European nations, including the British East India Company, connected the East and West through global infrastructure projects, bringing into the Americas migrants of many cultures, customs and rituals; including plants and herbs they had been accustomed to using [5]. As Canada entered Confederation, as many as 17 000 Asian migrants came between 1881 and 1884 as labourers on the Canadian Pacific Railway. Asian workers were paid less than their White counterparts while given the most dangerous tasks without proper medical care; leading many workers to rely on traditional or herbal medicine. [6]

The volume of Chinese migrants entering Canada led to the introduction of the first Chinese Head Tax in 1885, followed by subsequent increases over the years. This increasing anti-asian sentiment was not quelled, erupting into the 1907 Anti-Oriental Riots in Vancouver against Asians from India, Japan and China leading to extensive damage to the community and its property. The riots prompted then Deputy Minister of Labour Mackenzie King to visit British Columbia and became concerned with the growing numbers of white opium users and believed that Canada had to set precedence on drug use worldwide. The following year the government enacted the Opium Act of 1908, making it an indictable offence to import, manufacture, offer to sell, sell, or possess to sell opium for non-medical purposes. By 1923 the Canadian government passed the Chinese Immigration Act excluding Chinese migrants from entering Canada until 1947.[7] [8]

Prior to 1908, the use of opiates was unregulated, to the point where alcohol was considered the greater threat to public health and safety by the Temperance Movement. British victory from two Opium Wars with China led to legalization of opium production and growth of international trade supported by the British crown; overriding Chinese restrictions and leading to an epidemic in China not seen since 1729 [9]. Exportation of opium peaked in 1879 at 6,700 tons, and by 1906, China was producing 85 percent of the world's opium; some 35,000 tons, while 27 percent of its adult male population regularly used opium‍ (‌13.5 million people consuming 39,000 tons of opium yearly). [10]

In response to the now flourishing Opium trade, the first international drug control treaty, International Opium Convention was convened on January 23, 1912. The primary objective of the convention was to introduce restrictions on exports as opposed to prohibition or criminalising the use and cultivation of opium, coca, and cannabis. By 1925, the treaty was registered at the League of Nations (adopted by the United Nations in 1961) containing language, encouraged by US and China to restrict the use of hashish worldwide. India and other countries objected to this language, citing social and religious customs and the prevalence of wild-growing cannabis plants that would make it difficult to enforce. [11]

Ill will towards Cannabis had been growing by the time of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission report of 1894; setting precedence as the first sociological study of cannabis. [12] Over 7 volumes in length and 3,281 pages long, containing testimony from almost 1,200 "doctors, coolies, yogis, fakirs, heads of lunatic asylums, bhang peasants, tax gatherers, smugglers, army officers, hemp dealers, ganja palace operators and the clergy" the report helped undermine the then prevailing belief that consumption of ganja led to harms such as poverty, crime and insanity. The report concluded that"moderate use practically produces no ill effects," according to the report, and the evidence the commission heard "shows most clearly how little injury society has hitherto sustained from hemp drugs." (13)

Conclusion from the report did not stop the war on the “grave drug menace” in the West. With international pressure led by Henry Aslinger and the US government, Emily Murphy helped spread panic across Canada with illustrations of an Asian drug fiend.

In her 1922 publication The Black Candle, along with sharing racist attitudes towards non-whites and immigrants, Emily Murphy provided the first treatise in opposition to cannabis. Referencing recorded details, she stated that although not a new drug, it has been unknown in the United States and Canada at the time, “A visitor may be polite, patient, persevering, as above delineated, but if he carried poisoned lollypops in his pocket and feeds them to our children, it might seem wise to put him out.” [14] [15] Continuing, "It is hasheesh which makes both the Syrian and the Saxon Oriental," quoth one of its habitués. [18]

Emily Murphy was not the only one to provide memorable quotes during this era, a few others include:

Charles A. Jones, Los Angeles Chief of Police: "When coming from under the influence of this narcotic, these victims present the most horrible condition imaginable. They are dispossessed of their natural and normal will power, and their mentality is that of idiots. If this drug is indulged in to any great extent, it ends in the untimely death of its addict." [16]

Hamilton Fyfe, The Real Mexico: "They (the Mexicans) madden themselves with a drug called Marahuana. This has strange and terrible effects. It appears to make those who swallow it do whatever is uppermost in their thoughts. At El Paso, a peon came across the International Bridge firing a rifle at all and sundry. Much talk against the Americans and a dose of Marahuana had decided him to invade the United States by himself. The bridge-keeper quickly put a bullet into the poor wretch." [17]

W. H. B. Stoddart, Bethlehem Royal Hospital of London: "the drug is used for the purpose of inducing pleasurable motor excitement and hallucinations which are commonly sexual in character among Eastern races." [18]

Dr. Warnock, Journal of Mental Sciences (1903): acute mania from hasheesh varies from "a mild, short attack of excitement to a prolonged attack of furious mania, ending in exhaustion or even death." and "They are good-for-nothing lazy fellows who live by begging or stealing, and pester their relations for money to buy the hasheesh, often assaulting them when they refuse the demands." [18]

Cannabis, No More...

With mounting pressure, cannabis entered prohibition on April 23 1923 in the Narcotic Drugs Act Amendment Bill at the House of Commons [19] . This new motion added “heroin, codeine and cannabis indica (indian hemp) or hasheesh” to the restricted list. Catherine Carstairs argues cannabis was inserted into the Bill at the last minute due to international pressure (of which Canada wanted to appear at the forefront). These revisions were largely the result of moral reformers who had stirred up a full-blown moral panic with race remaining a persistent theme leading up to the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act. [20]

What’s interesting about our legislation is that we criminalized cannabis in 1923 (the U.S. didn’t federally criminalize pot until 1937) and really, there was very little discussion – public or government – about [adding] it to the drug schedule,” Carstairs argues. “[And] there were no arrests for possession of marijuana following (the) legislation. The first convictions were in 1937, which resulted in four possession convictions.” [20]

Dr. Susan Boyd furthers this sentiment, echoing that “The drug laws were seen as regulating these foreigners. If you look at [our] drug policies, they’re so race-based it boggles the mind. Our first drug prohibition was alcohol prohibition for status Indians, and that lasted more than a century.” Additionally, she adds, the unfavourable light on cannabis “was pervasive because we saw it as a plant-based drug and [we] deemed plant-based drugs as inferior to pharmaceutical drugs.” (21)

From here, Cannabis would remain prohibited for industrial purposes until 1998, while only a limited number of growers were licensed under Health Canada in 1961. [22] Regulation on access to cannabis for medical purposes became established in July 2001; setting the scene for future legalization.

Although Alcohol prohibition ultimately was a large failure, ending in 1927; Cannabis Prohibition lasted 90 years longer while persisting globally. When alcohol was made legal in Ontario, the Liquor Control Act (LCA) was passed with the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) created to enforce the LCA; the same mechanism implemented in the Cannabis Control Act of Ontario the LCBO (through the Ontario Cannabis Store OCS) being responsible for enforcing Ontario's provincial cannabis distribution system.

With such a tumultuous and duplicitous history, it becomes the responsibility of lawmakers to better understand the realities of cannabis prohibition as a form of systematic racism. As those who introduced cannabis to western culture have been stigmatized, many previously involved with the enforcement of cannabis prosper from the industry today. The failure in understanding these realities leads to cannabis as a commodity rather than an extension of cultural traditions and rituals connecting modern man to our distant ancestors.

Stay tokin'



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