Why Did Canada Legalize Medical Cannabis Before Recreational Cannabis?
The road to cannabis legalization in Canada has been a long one filled with twists, turns, and court cases. Medical cannabis has been legal in the country since 2001, but Canada’s history with cannabis goes much further back.
History of Prohibition
Canada first prohibited the use of cannabis in 1923, long before Harry Anslinger became the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and did the same in the United States. At the time, cannabis use wasn’t yet as popular in Canada as it is today.
Dr. Catherine Carstairs, Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Guelph, is attributed in the new book, The Wild West: Canada’s Legalization of Marijuana by Jon Hiltz, with the fact that in 1966 one in 25 Canadian high school students reportedly used cannabis, and by 1970 that figure had skyrocketed to one in three.
As cannabis use grew in popularity, more and more people were arrested for possession, which had until 1969, carried a six-month jail sentence. In 1975 the federal government introduced a bill to decriminalize cannabis use. Bill S-19 as it was called, did not pass the House of Commons and for the next two decades, the idea of cannabis decriminalization seemed to fade away.
Cannabis Advocate Terry Parker
During the AIDS epidemic in the 1990s, there was a renewed effort to decriminalize cannabis, beginning the medical cannabis movement in Canada. Canadian patients living with AIDS and Multiple Sclerosis fought in court to have cannabis legislation declared unconstitutional. The case of Terry Parker further bolstered these arguments. Parker was a Canadian man living with epilepsy who had been arrested for possession and cultivation. Parker successfully argued that medical cannabis was the only treatment that helped him manage his symptoms and the courts agreed that medical cannabis was not covered as a clause in prohibition. This landmark ruling paved the way for the first medical cannabis regulations known as the Marihuana for Medical Access Regulations (MMAR) that came into effect in 2001.
MMAR to MMPR
Until 2013, there was only one licensed producer—Prairie Plant Systems—to serve all of the medical cannabis patients. However, Canadians with a valid prescription could opt to grow their own medicine or designate someone else to do it for them. In 2013 the Stephen Harper government put out a call for companies to apply for licenses as cultivators. Over the next several years, dozens of companies, known as licensed producers, or LPs for short, were granted licenses by Health Canada to cultivate and distribute medical cannabis to Canadians with a prescription. All of these sales took place over the internet or phone, and the medicine was shipped to the recipient directly.
Health Canada conducted regular facility inspections (and continues to this day) to ensure compliance with regulations which had also undergone changes. In June of 2013, the MMAR ceased to exist and became the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR) which laid out the security and sanitary conditions under which a licensed producer could cultivate medical cannabis.
Legalization in Canada
In June of 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada, in R. v. Smith, ruled that restricting legal access to only dried cannabis was unconstitutional. Patients would now have access to cannabis oil, with which they could cook or consume as is, typically under the tongue. Justin Trudeau was simultaneously campaigning to be Prime Minister and one of the cornerstones of his campaign was that he would legalize recreational cannabis use. His reasoning for this was to prevent the black market and organized crime from profiting off cannabis and to create a regulated industry with standards to ensure safe consumption.
Today, Canada leads the world in cannabis cultivation for medical purposes and those standards extend to the adult recreational use market, effectively positioning Canadian producers as the global leader in cannabis.