Hello, Mary Jane: The Legalization of Marijuana

By Natasha Eklund


As we know, marijuana (party parsley, Lucifer’s lettuce, hippy cabbage or wacky tobaccy) is legalized and has been the subject of hot debate. Due to this historic occasion, I decided to research the history of this controversial drug. Unfortunately, the majority of the research I will present is based within the States as it was difficult to find much information on marijuana in Canada.


It’s a no-brainer that this plant has been around for millions of years and has been recorded for various uses by humans for at least 5,000 years. To begin addressing this complex history, I thought I would start with the basics. There are three distinct genera of Cannabis: sativa, indica, and ruderalis. Each strand has its own particular characteristics: sativa is known to grow much taller and its stem is firm (hemp is commonly acquired from this plant), ruderalis is smaller and it tends to be less potent because of its many years of cross-breeding in Central Russia, and the indica plant is shorter and stockier. If you choose to partake in smoking marijuana, you may find you have different experiences, which is based on the strand that you smoke. Sativa tends to create a euphoric feeling, but indica tends to be more mellow and calming.


It is also commonly known that hemp, a product of marijuana, can be used for a variety of products. Hemp stalks can create strong materials that can be used in sails for ships, clothing, plastic, and other purposes. As seen throughout American history, the cultivation of hemp was encouraged and even required during wartime.


Surprisingly enough, many key historical figures have partaken in and benefited from marijuana. Henry VIII and his daughter, Elizabeth I, issued decrees to encourage hemp cultivation in England. As well, Queen Victoria was prescribed medical marijuana as a pain reliever for menstrual cramps. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were both successful hemp farmers who had kept detailed notes on their precise process of farming the crop. In historic Chinese culture, cannabis was used frequently for medical purposes, even by the nation’s emperors.


Marijuana was banned within the United States in the 1930s, but its name still made its appearance in multiple song lyrics and was credited by many artists. Louis Armstrong released a song in the 1920s called “Muggles,” which was, at the time, jazz and blues slang for marijuana. Bob Marley’s song “Kaya,” the Beatles song “Got to Get You into My Life,” and Bob Dylan’s song “Rainy Day Women” all make mention of marijuana.


In Canada, the history of marijuana was much harder to find. The Montreal’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCU) advocated for restrictions and prohibition on smoking and cigarette usage from 1892-1914. The opposition to smoking was not due to concerns of health, but rather concerns of physical and mental degradation as it was claimed that smoking stunted growth. Robert Holmes, a member of the House of Commons, quoted a British parliament member, who claimed that the defeat of the Spanish-American War and the defeat of the French in the Franco-Prussian War was easily credited to the habit of smoking cigarettes, and that if individuals smoked, they would lack the vitality to become good soldiers. However, they were referring to tobacco more so than marijuana.


By the early 1920s, the Canadian government had passed harsh drug laws which included a six month minimum jail sentence for possession. By the late 1940s and 1950s, the mindset of drug users was that they had “inadequate personalities” and were, therefore, a threat to society due to their criminal activities. In Canada, however, the drug use was most commonly referred to as heroin as the use of marijuana was still rare.


In fact, a large reason for the marijuana prohibition in American is thanks to Harry Anslinger, a veteran of the Bureau of Prohibition whose term began in the late 1930s. Anslinger was one of the most passionate anti-drug advocator–he even toured the country giving speeches on why marijuana should be illegal. His information included creative stats and compelling anecdotes which were greatly manipulated and possibly made up. Anslinger preached that those who partook in marijuana would rob, rape, and murder strangers, police officers, and even members of their family. As well, Anslinger appealed to the public’s scare tactic of racial overtones as he implied that marijuana was introduced to the United States from Mexico.


The Tax Act of 1937 was one of the first of the government’s effort in criminalizing marijuana. This involved taxing all people involved in marijuana production, including anyone who imported, manufactured, produced, sold, or prescribed marijuana. By the time the 1960s rolled around in America, there was a dramatic social change, and marijuana was at its centre. This decade was the time of hippies and beatniks–two cultural groups who pushed against society’s norms and controversial government policies. They were about freedom, civil rights, and peace. The government’s response was to increase the criminalization of drugs in efforts to stop this movement and bring society back to how it was before the 1960s.


It did not help that Richard Nixon believed that drugs were detrimental to society; they added a criminal element that users should be removed. Nixon was known for his paranoia and irritation towards “otherness” (Jews, women, blacks, Democrats, Congress and foreigners). Nixon capitalized on this and used America’s fear of a changing society and placed the blame on those who partook in drugs, including marijuana. Nixon was successful in creating a clear “us vs. them” picture through his efforts and amped up the usage of drugs to be a “serious national threat to the personal health and safety of millions of Americans.” This began his War on Drugs campaign.


It was June 1971 when Nixon framed marijuana as public enemy number one. In 1972, the commission unanimously recommended that they decriminalize possession of marijuana, but Nixon ignored this. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which is responsible for dealing with drug use and drug smuggling in the United States, was formed by Nixon in 1973.


By the 1990s, reports on the public opinion on marijuana began to change as support for its legalization slowly began to increase. By 2000, its support jumped up to 31%; in 2013, Americans showed 58% support to legalize and the 2015 poll showed 71% in favour of legalization. This, in part, was due to people realizing that, by partaking in smoking marijuana, they were not actually overcome by schizophrenia, the urge to murder, or drop out of college.


Now that marijuana is legalized, I thought I would touch upon the laws and regulations being put in place. You must be 18 years of age to buy or consume marijuana. You will be able to buy it dried, fresh, or in oil form. Adults can legally grow up to 4 cannabis plants per household for their own personal use. Should an adult sell to a minor, the maximum jail penalty is 14 years. The same laws apply to driving high as they do to driving drunk.


Smoking marijuana will be prohibited within vehicles, anywhere a child is present, or where tobacco is restricted. Police are allowed to conduct roadside saliva tests if they suspect someone to be driving high; the laws on driving high mirror those of driving drunk. As of October 17, Edmonton will have 17 private retailers available to legally sell marijuana. The city has received 242 retail proposals, but it is unclear how many will be approved.


Each province sets specific rules on weed, so if you intend to leave Alberta, it is best to research the province’s laws. For example, in Manitoba, you must be 19 years of age, and public consumption of marijuana is prohibited, which includes smoking on the streets or sidewalk, beaches, parks, or restaurant patios.


Whether you have been enjoying marijuana for years or you are now curious to see what it is all about, please remember to stay safe and never drive high.  


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