letterhead designed by Ben Kuypers.
Late into the evening of April 23, 1923, the minister of health rose in the House of Commons and declared “there is a new drug on the schedule.” And like that, without naming the drug, without any debate in the house, marijuana was added to the The Opium and Narcotic Drug Act. Possession of marihuana (the legal name) became a criminal act, in the same league as the heinous crimes such as murder.
The Le Dain Report of the Canadian Government Commission of Inquiry into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs in 1972 found: “There was only passing reference to the subject in the debate and no discussion of the reasons for its inclusion. In any event, a decision was made in 1923, without any apparent scientific basis nor even any real sense of social urgency, to place cannabis on the same basis in the legislation as the opiate narcotics, such as heroin, and that is the way it has remained on the statute books ever since.”
But why? Marijuana use was virtually unheard of. Hemp, one of the three species of cannabis, was used to make rope and sailcloth. In fact, the word “canvas” is derived from “cannabis.” The United States didn’t criminalize marijuana until 24 years later. Even later, cannabis accounted for only 2% of all drug arrests in Canada between 1946 and 1961.
The panic to criminalize marijuana can be traced back to Emily Murphy, a police magistrate and judge of the Juvenile Court in Edmonton, Alberta. She described the evils of drug use in somewhat sensational terms in her book The Black Candle and in articles written for Maclean’s Magazine. A few of us saw the original magazine from February 15, 1920, that was archived in the Calgary Public Library.
The racial tone in Maclean’s was unmistakable as she compared marijuana with opium: “This explains why an educated and gentle woman reared in a refined atmosphere, consorting with the lowest classes of yellow and black men … Under the influence of the drug the woman loses control of herself; her moral senses are blunted … Sometimes she goes to the asylum, and sometimes she dies.”
In Murphy’s book, the Chief of Police of Los Angeles was quoted as having made the following statement about marijuana:
Persons using this narcotic smoke the dry leaves of the plant, which has the effect of driving them completely insane. The addict loses all sense of moral responsibility. Addicts to this drug, while under its influence, are immune to pain …. While in this condition they become raving maniacs and are liable to kill or indulge in any form of’ violence to other persons, using the most savage methods of cruelty, without, as said before, any sense of moral responsibility.
While Mrs. Murphy did some good in helping women get the right to vote, her writings were partly responsible for the inclusion of marijuana in the Schedule to The Opium and Narcotic Drug Act in 1923.
Some disagree with the degree of Mrs. Murphy’s influence. A Wikipedia article states: “More likely, cannabis was added to the list because of Canadian involvement in international conferences where it was discussed.”
Our goal was the legalization of marijuana although we were prepared to accept decriminalization as a first step. The name of our committee was chosen, in part, to be one letter removed from the ALCB –the Alberta Liquor Control Board. We imagined distribution of marijuana through government stores where the quality, strength and price could be controlled. On the eve of legalization of marijuana in Canada, various models of distribution are being considered, including provincial liquor stores.