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Police and prosecution services in all Canadian jurisdictions are capable of pursuing criminal charges for cannabis possession. Despite this, there is a lack of consensus on the legal status of cannabis in Canada. Superior and appellate courts in Ontario have repeatedly declared Canada’s cannabis laws to be of no force and/or effect if a prescription is obtained. However, challenges to cannabis laws at the federal level have not resulted in the deletion of the appropriate sections from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
Cannabis is legal to possess, consume, or grow for medicinal purposes under conditions outlined in the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations issued by Health Canada. In June 2015, the City of Vancouver regulated the sale of medical marijuana from municipally licensed dispensaries. The cultivation of the hemp plant of the genus Cannabis (family Cannabaceae) is currently legal in Canada for seed, grain and fibre production only under licenses issued by Health Canada.
Since 1997, public opinion polls have found an increasing majority of Canadians agree with the statement, “Smoking marijuana should not be a criminal offence”. A 2015 poll conducted by Forum Research showed that 68% of Canadians are in favor of relaxing cannabis regulations.
History of drug prohibition in Canada
Early drug prohibition
Drug prohibition in Canada began with the Opium Act of 1908, which was introduced based on a report by then-Deputy Minister of Labour, Mackenzie King. Following the Asiatic Exclusion League riot of 1907, King went to Vancouver to investigate causes of the riots and claims for compensation. Some of the claims came from opium manufacturers seeking compensation for damage done to their production facilities by the mob that attacked Chinatown and Japantown. While in Vancouver, King interviewed members of a Chinese anti-opium league and came away in favour of suppressing the drug because “opium smoking was making headway, not only among white men and boys, but also among women and girls.” In his report, King summarized the progress of the anti-opium movement in China, the United States, Britain, and Japan to make the point that Canada was lagging behind in this international movement. King’s recommendations were the basis for the 1908 Opium Act, which prohibited the sale, manufacture, and importation of opium for other than medicinal use.:24 This was followed by the Opium and Drug Act of 1911, which outlawed the sale or possession of morphine, opium, or cocaine. Smoking opium became a separate offence, punishable by a maximum penalty of $50 and one month in jail.:24 King introduced the new legislation based on recommendations from the chief constable of the Vancouver police and to bring Canada’s drug laws in line with resolutions passed at an American-led international anti-opium conference in Shanghai.:25 The name of the 1911 Act is significant because it separates opium, associated with Chinese users, from “white drugs,” so labelled because of the colour of both the drugs themselves and the race of those presumed to be consuming them.
The next wave of legislation began with the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act of 1920, which was amended in 1921 and again in 1922 before being consolidated in 1923. Penalties became stiffer in the 1920s, with far more prison terms being handed out compared with the earlier period when fines were typically given.:25 Maximum prison sentences also increased from one to seven years and in 1922, possession and trafficking became a deportable offence.:25 The catalyst for these laws also differed from the earlier ones in that they were largely the result of the agitation of moral reformers, particularly those in Vancouver who had stirred up a full-blown moral panic over the drug issue in the early 1920s.:25 Race remained a persistent theme, and the drug prohibition movement was closely related to the move to totally exclude Chinese immigrants from Canada, which led to the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act.:46