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Political Dictionary of the History of Health

Anti-drug Campaigns

 The history of anti-drug campaigns in Canada brings out the equal parts played by international politics and public health concerns.York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC00718

   The history of anti-drug campaigns in Canada brings out the equal parts played by international politics and public health concerns.


   During the second half of the 19th century, narcotics and hallucinogenic drugs were readily available in Canada. Physicians would sometimes prescribe them; some people used them recreationally while others purchased them to address health problem. In reaction to these social practices some Canadians got involved in moral regulation movements, thereby turning a social reality into a problem to be solved through coercive measures; they wanted to influence the way society governs individuals but also the way individuals govern themselves.


   At the end of the 19th century the advocates of moral regulation were often Christians belonging to Social Gospel, a Protestant movement born in the United States. They targeted drugs, denounced users and were alarmed by the addiction problems by then documented by doctors. They viewed addiction among women as a particular threat to society for it compromised their suitability for motherhood and childcare. But the anti-drug campaign also attracted some women’s groups, some nationalists and some trade unions. These activists linked drug use, such as opium to specific ethnic groups, notably the Chinese. This was grist to the mill of nationalist organisations keen to promote their vision of Canada as a white society, and to that of trade unions alive to the thought that some ethnic groups’ presence in workshops and building sites brings wages down.


   It is in British Columbia that the campaign for the restriction of Asian migration was most aggressive. At the time, the anti-drug coalition could depend on the support of William Lyon Mackenzie King deputy minister of labour in the federal government. Appointed to investigate the loss suffered by Japanese and Chinese residents as a result of the 1907 anti-Oriental riots in Vancouver, he grew curious of the claims made by two Chinese opium manufacturers. King accordingly visited opium dens and concluded that the state must intervene in this trade and practice. The anti-drug coalition thus recorded its first legal victory in 1908. Canada was one of the first countries to make the importation and manufacture of cannabis for other than medical ends illegal. The 1911 Opium and Drug Act allowed the federal government to add new drugs such as cocaine and morphine to the list of forbidden substances. Criminalisation did not, however, put an end to their consumption, the distribution of which would henceforward be controlled by the underworld. 


   With the support of US pressure groups, anti-drug champions pressed on with their campaign worldwide. According to them, afflicted countries, such as Canada and the United States bore the cost of the reluctance of the producing countries – and of the European countries that supported them – to restrict and repress the production of opium and other substances with psychoactive properties. This anti-drug lobby advanced to the implementation of international agreements such as the 1912 International Opium Convention, which addresses drug production, distribution and consumption. In 1923, Canadian anti-drug campaigners recorded another victory with the criminalisation by the federal government of the possession, supply, importation and exportation of marijuana. Not that marijuana consumption was, at the time, at the centre of social debates but that it did worry some moral reformers.


   The emergence of counterculture in the 1960s brought on a wave of experimentation and consumption of new substances. Medical opinions diverged. Some physicians didn’t believe in the deleterious effects of marijuana consumption. Others shared its adversaries’ fears citing short- and long- term detrimental health impact even though they admitted that studies on the matter had not yielded any conclusive results. Several groups objected to the legalization of marijuana, among them parents, religious leaders, teachers, police authorities, politicians and judges. Since the medical community had reached no conclusion on the long-term impact of such an illicit drug as marijuana, they implored the government not to legalise the substance. The federal government forewent any notion of marijuana decriminalisation, content with amending the legislation by reducing the penalties in 1969.

   The Marijuana issue would reassert itself in the 1990s. Cannabis partisans insist that its consumption offers relief to multiple sclerosis and AIDS sufferers. In 2000 Ontario’s appeal court invalidates the legislation banning marijuana possession and gives the Federal government 12 months to reconsider its options. In response the ministry of health implements the Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations which allow seriously ill people and those suffering from chronical disease to consume cannabis provided that they have obtained permission from two physicians. In 2013, the leader of the Liberal Party, Justin Trudeau, announces that, given the failure of repression-driven policies, his party will legalise marijuana, a position shared by legal experts and health specialists. Arrived in power in 2015, the Liberal government will legalise Marijuana use three years later.


Read more in the dictionary :  LSD - Psychedelic

Read the paper in French : Campagnes anti drogues

Marcel Martel - York University (Toronto, Canada)

References :

Marcel Martel, Canada the Good? A Short History of Vice Since 1500. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2014.

Marcel Martel, Not This Time: Canadians, Public Policy and the Marijuana Question, 1961-1975. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006.


To quote this paper : Marcel Martel, "Anti-drug campaigns", in Hervé Guillemain (dir.), DicoPolHiS, Le Mans Université, 2024.

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