"Knowing about Canadian drug prohibition allows us to critically reflect on past practices, legal regulation, law enforcement, moral reformers and their agendas, new events and avenues to adopt."

~ Susan Boyd, Busted

Early History

The current and prevailing moralistic view of drugs came from the shores of Europe as British settlers arrived in Canada to eventually colonize Indigenous land. More specifically, prohibition—grounded in the idea that drugs are inherently bad and an immoral, corrupting force—evolved from the Protestant Christian ethic of the 1700s that used prohibition as a means of social control over racialized nations and communities. These communities were viewed as “other” and a threat to white European supremacy.

In the 1700 to 1800s, psychoactive substances were legal in Canada and many were taken for medical purposes. In India, China, and the Middle East, people consumed opium for pain management, as did Europeans. Opium was brought to North America by European settlers and sold as medicine—fully legal, taken orally, or in teas and elixirs. Coca (from which cocaine is derived) was grown in South America for thousands of years and came to Europe and Canada after South America was colonized. In the late 1800s, products like wine and cough drops containing the stimulant became commonplace. People suffering from a range of conditions, including depression and insomnia, also consumed cannabis for relief.

“Drug prohibition has also been intricately tied up with colonization.”

Views shifted in society over the 1800s and early 1900s due to the influence of Protestantism, with an emphasis on moral purity and sobriety; an increased uneasiness in the medical community around unregulated medicine; and colonial discourse that regarded some drug consumption as a contagion brought to the west by racialized outsiders; thus, a threat to white middle-class morality.

The Opium Wars

Great Britain and China fought two opium wars that ended with a British victory securing their trade activity in opium poppy. The first was in 1839, and the second—with France fighting alongside Great Britain—was in 1856. The British greatly benefited from trade activity in which they exported opium from India to China in exchange for profits allowing them to buy luxury goods like porcelain and silk, which were in high demand in the West. When China tried to end the trade, hostilities ensued and war broke out. The conflict afforded Christian missionaries in North America an opening to advance their narrative about the evils of opium smoking, especially by foreigners, as they were now seen as enemy combatants.

Protestant missionaries’ view on opium use in colonized nations was a form of cultural imperialism because they failed to see how use was not problematic, especially in India.

Seizing on anti-Chinese sentiment, Christian moral reformers successfully branded opium smoking as inherently “foreign” and dangerous—linked to Chinese men—and a threat to white, moral, Christian society, while Britain’s free trade in opium was largely overlooked. This framing and shift in public sentiment laid the groundwork for laws and policies that would take shape in coming decades, ones which cemented prohibition as policy and engendered the health and social harms we currently see today.

1880s – 1920s: The Beginnings of Narcotics Control

Vancouver was the birthplace of prohibition in Canada, driven largely by anti-Chinese racism and a perceived threat to white middle class purity. Chinese men arrived in Canada to work on the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1880s, and when the railway was finished many settled in Vancouver. At the time, anti-Indigenous racism was already prevalent in the city, stemming from colonialism and the strictures of the Indian Act, including prohibition of alcohol sales to those labelled Status Indian.

Chinese people were forced to pay a head tax and barred from home and business ownership outside an area currently known as “Chinatown” in Vancouver’s east end. Some Chinese men at the time smoked opium for pain relief and relaxation. Moral reformers and the media linked opium smoking to racialized men corrupting moral white Christians. This racism was exacerbated by an economic downturn where, fuelled by fears of unemployment, white labourers viewed Japanese and Chinese workers as a threat to their jobs.

The Race Riots of 1907 - The Spark Igniting Drug Prohibition

On September 7, 1907, angered by a perceived threat to their employment security, some 9,000 people, including labour leaders and politician, marched to Vancouver City Hall in protest. A group of white men splintered off and headed to Chinatown. They vandalized and destroyed Chinese- and Japenese-run businesses while stirring up violence and mayhem in the process. “The media [also] contributed to anti-Asian attitudes by demanding that BC remain a white province, portraying Chinese people as inferior outsiders, calling for deportation, and insisting that immigration cease.” (Boyd, 39)

The 1907 “race riot” attracted the glare of international media. Then Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier sent his deputy minister of the Department of Labour, Mackenzie King, to Vancouver to investigate. With such a high-profile government official in town, anti-opium reformers (with strong Protestant missionary ties) seized the opportunity to gain the ear of Ottawa. They requested a meeting with King hoping to persuade him and influence government policy.

“Drug prohibition is a multi-billion dollar experiment that has utterly failed.”

The Chinese Anti-Opium League regarded opium as a social evil ruinous to the social fabric. They were granted an audience with King, and after their meeting King sought to suppress the perceived evil of smoking opium in Canada. While speaking to the media afterwards, King declared that “it should be made impossible to manufacture this drug in any part of the Dominion… we will get some good out of this riot yet.” (Boyd 41) Thus, the wheels were in motion for the formal criminalization of substance use across Canada.

Black and white photo of Mackenzie King

Mackenzie King

July 1, 1908

“The Chinese with whom I converse on the subject, assured me that almost as much opium was sold to white people as Chinese, and the habit of opium smoking was making headway, not only among white men and boys, but also among women and girls… to be indifferent to the growth of such an evil in Canada would be inconsistent with those principles of morality which ought to govern the conduct of a Christian nation.”

The Opium Act of 1908

Swayed by his meetings with anti-opium reformers, King became one of the early evangelists for prohibition in the federal government. He submitted a report calling for the suppression of opium. Absent any evidence or debate in Parliament Hill, the Opium Act of 1908 was passed and enacted, thereby putting Canada on a dangerous path to prohibition that would cause more harm than good, including police profiling, harsh prison sentences, and an unregulated illegal drug market. All of these harms disproportionately affected Black, Brown, and Indigenous Canadian, a legacy which continues to this day.

The Act punished those who imported, manufactured, or sold opium for non-medical purposes, and the criminal and monetary penalties were disproportionately exorbitant. The Opium Act was legislation targeting Chinese Canadian men and was grounded in anti-Chinese racism.

In 1911, Parliament passed the Opium and Drug Act, which added other drugs to the list of prohibited substances, including cocaine and morphine. Police powers of enforcement were also expanded, and law enforcement began to more vigorously target Chinese men. Drug-related convictions began to rise.

The push towards prohibition spread across Canada. In Montreal, the Children’s Aid Society—supported by politicians, religious leaders, police, and the Montreal Women’s Club—launched an anti-cocaine campaign. The media adopted the prohibitionist mindset and published sensationalized stories demonizing substance use and vilifying those who used drugs. These stories were used by Mackenzie King in the House of Commons to further strengthen prohibitionist drug policy, which would have disastrous long-term consequences for Canada.

After World War I

After World War I, North American became even more suspicious of the foreign “other.” Canadians viewed outsiders, especially those of Chinese descent, as enemies. All of this dialled up the desire to further criminalize substance use by strengthening the laws governing it.

The Opium and Narcotic Drug Act was passed in 1920. One year later, Mackenzie King—the father of prohibition—became prime minister and Canada’s drug regulation began to centralize and strengthen under the Narcotic Division, a newly created department within government. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) would assume the role of enforcing the punitive drug laws, which were connected to a system opposing drug maintenance programs in favour of abstinence and jail.

“As the 1920s progressed, Canada’s drug laws became harsher.”

The 1920s: Emily Murphy & Anti-Drug Propaganda

The history of drug prohibition in Canada is punctuated by figures who played seminal roles in shaping policies that continue to harm communities (especially racialized) to this day. Emily Murphy was one such figure. She was a magistrate and ardent moral reformer who published a series of articles in Maclean’s Magazine that would later be compiled into a book, The Black Candle (1922). Her writing depicts substance use as destabilizing, corrupting force within civilized society and casts “racialized others” as a threat to a white nation. Murphy blamed opium smoking for crime and women’s sexual immorality, even arguing that “white women in close proximity to racialized men would lead to their inevitable downfall and would threaten the white Christian nation.” (Boyd 53) Murphy also played a role in the prohibition of marijuana.

Local Rotary and Kiwanis clubs, child welfare associations, and the police concurrently launched anti-drug public awareness campaigns. Other media campaigns offered solutions to the “Chinese menace,” which included abolishing Chinatowns, deporting Chinese Canadians, and harsher drug laws. The mainstream media fuelled anti-Chinese racism through their depictions of “foul” opium dens and by framing Chinese men as a corrupting force.

“Criminalized drugs have long been linked to marginalized and racialized groups, who have been depicted as outsiders to the nation threatening moral Canadians.”

The anti-drug/anti-Chinese media campaign led to the Chinese Exclusion Act (1923), which, among other injustices, intensified police enforcement against the Chinese community and their substance use. In 1922, the government strengthened the Opium and Narcotics Drug Act, and the following year marijuana was added to the list of prohibited drugs. Prohibition was gaining momentum. Significant prison sentences were enacted for most drug offences; and in the late 1920s, the Narcotic Division intensified its surveillance of pharmacies and people who use drugs. The trend continued in the following decade. By 1938, 11 different groups of drugs were criminalized.

1940s – 1950s: The Criminal Addict and Psychedelics

In the 1940s, the association between addiction and criminality strengthened and concern around the “criminal addict” intensified. The label justified a punitive criminal justice approach as a response to people who used drugs instead of public health interventions rooted in evidence. Around this time, 75 percent of drug convictions were for possession and almost three quarters of those resulted in a prison sentence. Many viewed people who used drugs as inherently dangerous and a risk to society. That mischaracterization continues today and contributes to the structural and societal stigma fuelling overdose deaths.

After World War II, with many of the opium dens closed and Chinese residents deported, drug use in Canada shifted from smoking opium to injecting heroin and morphine. Psychiatrists took a more active role in the treatment of addiction—especially heroin—and people who used drugs were seen as pathological in addition to criminal. Law enforcement was still the default response to substance use; and police were extremely class biased, profiling and targeting visible “criminal addicts.”

In 1948, the National Film Board (NFB) produced Drug Addict, a documentary about substance use made as an educational tool for police and health professionals. The film perpetuated prevailing stereotype that drugs were being brought to Canada by the foreign, racialized “other” and reinforced the criminality of people who use drugs, casting them as individuals to be feared. The documentary—produced with input from the RCMP—and another NFB production, Monkey on the Back (1956), underscored the myth that the only suitable response to drug use was law enforcement.

Around this time, although rarely prescribed, legal heroin was still available through prescription; but in 1955, Canada stopped issuing permits for importation following recommendations from the World Health Organization.

Earnest Winch and the Ranta Report: A Health Perspective

Earnest Winch was a Member of Legislative Assembly in BC and one of the earliest and vocal proponents of a public health paradigm for substance use. In 1955, he argued before government that it must set up “legalized medical clinics for the treatment of certified chronic drug addicts for the purpose of administering the minimum amount which will enable them to carry on their means of livelihood and refrain from having to resort to underworld sources of drug supply.” (Boyd 72) Winch also highlighted the class bias that manifested in the enforcement of drug laws, noting that it was poor and working-class people who disproportionately felt the brunt of the criminal justice system for drug-related offences. Wealthy people could pay others to obtain drugs for them and afford expensive treatment options out of reach for the working class.

In 1952, Dr. Lawrence Ranta and others authored a report in Vancouver arguing that drug use and addiction are a health issue rather than a criminal justice issue. Contrary to the prevailing views at the time, in his report Dr. Ranta recommended setting up publicly-funded drug treatment, including narcotic clinics that would dispense legal heroin for people who were addicted to the drug.  In response to the findings of the report, and because the federal government refused to regard substance use as a health issue, the Narcotic Addiction Foundation of British Columbia (NAFBC) was established by the province in 1955. It was the first organization in Canada to provide methadone as treatment through a 12-day withdrawal program. Despite the NAFBC’s work, the federal government continued to criminalize substance use and people who used drugs.

Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD)

LSD was legal in Canada in the 1950s, with researchers engaged in ground-breaking work studying its therapeutic qualities. During this decade, the Saskatchewan Mental Hospital in Weyburn distinguished itself as a hub of innovative research on LSD. Researchers experimented with the drug for the treatment of schizophrenia and alcoholism. In 1962, Saskatchewan became the first province with public health care and Premier Tommy Douglas—a proponent of public and mental health care—offered research grants to attract doctors engaged in innovative work. Our understanding of LSD greatly increased during this time.

“Drugs are not entities with fixed meaning: our ideas about them are framed by the era we live in.”

1960s – 1970s: The Counter-Culture Movement

“The 60s” were a time of political and social change in Canada, not just a decade of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” Activism flourished, centred around a counter-culture movement developed partially in response to the conservative government of John Diefenbaker. This movement was more open-minded to alternative views about sex, race, and rational consciousness. Illegal drug use increased, especially cannabis use, as society coalesced around a desire for political and social change that challenged convention.

It was also a time of some of the harshest drug laws yet seen. The Narcotic Control Act came into force in 1961. It legalized discrimination and punitive penalties against people who used drugs. That same year, Canada signed the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, an international agreement that weakened domestic control over drug policy. The Single Convention reaffirmed and strengthened a criminal justice approach to substance use.

Cannabis Reveals Racist Double Standard

During this decade, white university students and their preference for cannabis would highlight the ways in which racism had informed drug policy up to this point. In the late 1960s, university students across Canada called for cannabis legalization. Prior to this point racialized (mainly Chinese and Black) men were the targets of drug policy, followed by white, poor, heroin users in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. However, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the crosshairs of police enforcement shifted to white middle-class youth. By 1972, arrests for cannabis possession dramatically increased.

Out of concern for their kids, white middle-class parents questioned the criminalization of cannabis and police profiling of cannabis users. The mainstream media, such as Chatelaine, Life, and Time Magazine, rallied behind the white middle-class youth by writing stories critical of the harsh prison sentences handed down to them. This was in stark contrast to the way that media portrayed Chinese men as the foreign “other,” vectors of immorality, and a threat to social cohesion.

The Georgia Straight began publication in 1976. The paper became an ardent voice against cannabis prohibition and police brutality against youth. Editor Dan McLeod was arrested and beaten by police, and the publication was charged more times than any other in Canada under the country’s obscenity laws.

The Gastown Smoke-In and Street Jamboree

Across Canada, music festivals became important spaces for youth involved in the counter-culture movement, which Vancouver mayor Tom Campbell ardently opposed. Many youth congregated in Gastown, which on August 7, 1971 was the site of a large public event, the Gastown Smoke-In and Street Jamboree, that was organized in response to police brutality against youth, marijuana-related arrests, and an undercover sweep known as Operation Dustpan.

“Operation Dustpan was simple enough: increase police presence in troubled neighbourhoods and insert undercover units to bust drug users. In practice, however, dustpan was far more disruptive and invasive than on paper. In Gastown, officers cordoned off entire blocks, rounding everyone up and subjecting them to searches. Those who looked like hippies with long hair, beards and different clothing were frequently stopped when walking the streets, then detained and searched. The police considered Operation Dustpan a major success; within the first 10 days, 59 arrests had been made in Gastown alone.” (Vancouver Police Museum)

During the public event, large crowds gathered at the corner of Carroll and Water Streets, and they were soon followed by Vancouver police officers with dogs, horses, and batons. “Police charged into the peaceful crowd, swinging their batons, arresting people, and creating mayhem.” (Boyd 116) A subsequent investigation into the chaos that transpired ruled that the Vancouver Police had caused a riot.

The Le Dain Commission

In 1969, a Canadian government commission of inquiry began into the non-medical use of drugs. Representatives of the Commission sought input on drug use, treatment, and laws and policies from a range of communities across Canada. In its findings the Commission recommended that criminal sanctions against people who use drugs be reduced, the offence of possession of cannabis be repealed, and medical treatment for individuals addicted to opioids be offered instead of criminal punishment. The recommendations of the Le Dain Commission were never implemented.

Pharmaceutical Drugs

Pharmaceutical drug use became more common in the 1960s but remained less visible due to the disproportionate attention paid to illegal drugs. While the mainstream media focused on criminalized substances like heroin, TV and film reflected the changes that were happening with pharmaceutical drugs like Valium, which was being used outside of a medical context. Films like Valley of the Dolls, a drama about three white women and their pharmaceutical drug use, reflected this shift. “Popular culture often emphasized that the line separating legal and illegal drugs is illusory and unstable.” (Boyd 123)

In 1971, to curb the illegal trade and production of “synthetic drugs,” the United Nations extended the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs to control several of these substances as well. That same year, Canada’s minster of health, John Munro, committed to legalizing marijuana in Canada. Bill S-19, which would have removed cannabis from the Narcotic Control Act, was tabled but failed to pass after opposition from law enforcement. Afterwards, the criminalization and oppression of substance-using communities continued. The Heroin Treatment Act came into effect in British Columbia in 1978 and permitted involuntary detainment of people who used drugs in need of treatment.

Nearing the end of the 1970s, the activist spirit of the preceding decade was waning, partly due to government attacks on labour and a flagging economy. Despite the loss of momentum, advocacy to end the drug war continued into the next decade.

1980s – 2000: Resisting the Drug War

Prohibition and abstinence-based treatment continued under neo-liberalism and the criminalization of substance use intensified in Canada in lockstep with United States. In 1986, US President Ronald Reagan reaffirmed Richard Nixon’s “war on drugs” by increasing law enforcement spending and approving mandatory minimum penalties for drug offences. Canadian Prime Minster Brian Mulroney then introduced Canada’s first five-year National Drug Strategy in 1987. Canada then signed the Convention Against Illicit Trafficking in Narcotics and Psychotropic Substances (UN) in 1988, which expanded international enforcement of illegal drugs. In 1997, the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act replaced the Narcotic Control Act in Canada but remained rooted in prohibitionist policies.

By the mid-1990s, two movements emerged in response to Canada’s criminalization of substance use: people who used drugs were at the forefront of a shift towards harm reduction and more compassionate, evidence-based treatment; and a cannabis legalization movement.

Harm Reduction

Harm reduction began internationally in the 1980s in the United Kingdom and Netherlands as a means to save lives. In Canada, the first needle exchange programs opened in the late 80s in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal. These programs contravened drug paraphernalia laws at the time, but did so to save lives and prevent HIV infection. In the early 90s, there was a rise in drug overdoses and HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C infections in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Activists demanded change from politicians and in defiance of the law opened their own unofficial safe injection sites, such as the Back Alley on Powell Street, to save lives and respond to an urgent public health need. 

In 1997, activists Bud Osborne and Ann Livingston, co-founded Canada’s first drug user union: the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU). VANDU was instrumental in advocating for the rights, health, and safety of people who use drugs and residents of the Downtown Eastside. Its members mobilized the community and organized protests drawing attention to the drug poisoning and HIV crises bourgeoning at the time.

Thanks to their efforts, the Vancouver-Richmond Health Board declared a public health emergency in 1997, and the chorus calling for supervised injection sites and heroin-assisted treatment grew louder. After city-wide consultation in 2001, City of Vancouver drug policy coordinator, Donald MacPherson, authored a seminal report, A Four Pillar Approach to Drug Problems in Vancouver, that recommended harm reduction, along with treatment, enforcement, and prevention as key priorities of a comprehensive drug policy strategy. The “Four Pillars” was  adopted as official policy by the City of Vancouver and would inform and inspire drug policy approaches of jurisdiction across Canada.

“Knowing the history of Canadian prohibition can guide us to better understand current events and notions about drugs and the people who use them.”

MacPherson also recommended opening safe injection sites and offering heroin-assisted treatment. In 2003, Insite, Canada’s first official supervised injection site, opened its door and began providing life-saving health services to a community in need. Since 2002, the Dr. Peter Centre was operating a nurse-supervised injection site without federal approval that was integrated into its regular health care programs.

Stephen Harper’s Conservatives formed government in 2006 and the following year introduced their National Anti-Drug Strategy. It vehemently opposed harm reduction in favour of law enforcement, using long held stereotypes and myths about substance use to advance their anti-drug agenda. The gains made by people who use drugs and their allies would face considerable opposition from an ideologically driven government with little interest in harm reduction. The Harper Conservatives tried to shut down Insite, but were unsuccessful after the Portland Hotel Society and clients Dean Wilson and Shelly Tomic launched a constitutional challenge. In 2011, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that closing North America’s first supervised injection site would violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms for people who relied on its services.

Though they lost this battle in court, the federal Conservatives would continue to wage war against substance use and people who used drugs. They implemented the Safe Streets and Communities Act and amended the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to increase its punitive scope.

Heroin-Assisted Treatment and Another Drug Overdose Crisis

In 1984, the government lifted the ban on licenses for heroin importation, and a heroin-assisted treatment (HAT) trial began in Vancouver and Montreal in 2005. The treatment proved successful and beneficial for long-term opioid users unresponsive to conventional health interventions. However, a permanent HAT program was not set up at that time. A second heroin-assisted treatment trial opened its doors in Vancouver at the end of 2011.  As the study neared its conclusion, there was a realization that those who had benefited would be abruptly cut off from the substances that were improving their lives. Therefore, in 2013 five plaintiffs (trial participants) along with Providence Health Care of BC filed a Charter challenge against the federal government; but in 2005, the Liberals defeated Stephen Harper’s Conservatives and withdrew the case. As of September 2017, Vancouver’s Crosstown Clinic has been providing North America’s only heroin-assisted treatment program.

There is more to this story: Between 2010 and 2020 another drug poisoning/overdose epidemic has emerged—this one unprecedented in scale and severity. Illegal, unregulated fentanyl and carfentanil has contaminated the illegal drug supply and resulted in thousands of deaths across Canada. At the time of writing more than 17,000 people in Canada have died from drug poisoning and overdose, and for the first time in four decades, life expectancy at birth has stopped rising. British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario have borne the brunt of this crisis. The final pages of Busted: An Illustrated history of Drug Prohibition in Canada delves into this stark reality, along with the activism of harm reduction leaders and some politicians, who boldly confronted apathy with action. The book also chronicles the fight for marijuana legalization, which finally ended in 2018 when cannabis became legally accessible across Canada. However, Busted also argues that the new Cannabis Act did not break fully from criminalization as some of the penalties for offences under the Act are quite punitive. Nor does the Act exonerate people who have criminal records for non-violent cannabis offences.

Outside this historical account, bold initiatives and activism are writing the next chapter of drug policy in Canada: a movement of people who use drugs and mothers who have lost sons and daughters is redefining antiquated and harmful views on substance use; community-led harm reduction programs are providing hope and life where substance use meets poverty; and doctors using technology are lowering the barriers to accessing safe, regulated drugs to people in need.

Be on the right side of history. Support drug policies based on compassion, public health principles, and justice for all. Your perspective matters, and collectively we can empower politicians to enact the laws that will help save lives and—in the case of drug policy—right the errant path of history.