Canada’s “Reefer Madness”: Marijuana, Propaganda, and 21st Century Hysteria

The legalization and consumption of marijuana remains a contentious topic for Canadians — but to understand marijuana’s concerning and seemingly anchored, negative reputation, one must delve into the history of Canada’s drug laws.

Perhaps the ruinous tide of propaganda that hampered marijuana sentiment followed legitimate concerns. In 1908, Canada saw an “Opium Act” of its own (many Western nations had already tackled this perceived threat). Opium, a recreational drug of Asian origin, had found its way to North America in the 19th century as a legal prescription for various ailments, a remedy for the hardships of 19th century living, and a recreational practice made exciting and curious by the likes of various writer/artist-addicts (such as Charles Dickens and Samuel Taylor Coleridge).     

In Canada, the first drug law was in passed 1908

This picture developed into an issue of dependence and shame — most notably, anecdotal evidence suggests that some American women began to consume opium as an alternative to drinking alcohol, a heavily stigmatized practice for women at the time. Moreover, the lauded medicinal potential of opium lead to haughty over-prescription by doctors and a surge of peddlers looking to profit from this miracle tonic — which indeed, was appreciated as “God’s Own Medicine” during its era of popularity. 

In Canada, the first drug law was in passed 1908 as an indirect result of anti-Asian sentiment and the Vancouver riots of the racist Asiatic Exclusion League. Following the riots, Canada’s Deputy Minister of Labour, Mackenzie King, investigated the possible causes of the riots and claims for compensation. King came upon opium manufacturers whose production facilities had been damaged by the riots, and he became panicked by the growing opium trade in Canada, and opium’s increasing popularity among whites.

His reported fears lead to various pieces of legislation from 1908 to 1923 that made possession of opium and its derivatives and eventually marijuana, illegal. Marijuana fell to this harsh, prohibitive legislation likely due to the influence of other nations’ efforts to curtail the spread of the drug’s use — as similarly, the United States experienced its own wave of racist sentiment towards drug users: marijuana became increasingly associated with Mexican immigration during The Great Depression.

Canada’s early drug laws were our protective, but prejudicially misguided measures to safeguard white Canadians.

Sadly, Canada’s drug laws stigmatized marijuana and followed the guiding principles of prohibition and punishment, rather than drug research and addiction treatment—as did many of the existing drug laws of the time. Although Marijuana was known and consumed for its therapeutic qualities as early as 1842, after an Irish scientist and physician observed its use in India, it was nonetheless expelled from public debate and access by the turn of the 20th century because of legislators’ fears. Marijuana became as odious as opium, and Canada’s leaders were unwilling to take the social risk of liberating a substance they mistakenly viewed as a public harm — like the other powerful and addicting drugs of the day.

Marijuana research has confirmed and expanded upon previous findings of the drug’s therapeutic effects

Presently, marijuana research has confirmed and expanded upon previous findings of the drug’s therapeutic effects. Marijuana has become known for its ability to suppress anxiety and pain and provide symptom relief and well-being in sufferers of certain cancers, AIDS, and select neurological conditions. But this was not always common knowledge — in fact, the public of the past had a propaganda-tainted view of marijuana— and it was ludicrous.

The 1936 American exploitation flick, Reefer Madness, is an infamous look at the depravity and insanity of a marijuana user’s mind — if marijuana users were fiends from a Hitchcockian fever-dream. Reefer Madness, if taken at face-value, was blindly stigmatizing, featuring such tropes as: pushers luring teens into addiction, drug-crazed murder, the inevitable trouble with the law, and the ever-damnable jazz music.

Though this sinister look at a marijuana user’s seemingly degenerate life fostered public concerns, it also eventually slipped into common knowledge as a cult flick of rampant propaganda. Yet sadly, this flick is no far cry from what the Canadian government seems to be “pushing” upon the public: hysteria. Health Canada recently aired a brief ad of caution against the drug featuring an image of a decaying brain — which is meant to raise health concerns by way of a “marijuana diminishes IQ” claim. Though the Canadian government seems eager to maintain the destructive image of marijuana, both research and history beg to refute our modern day marijuana fears.

Canadian “Reefer Madness” or misinformed, antiquated, and stubborn thinking is a symptom of the Canadian government, not its forward-thinking people.

Sources

  1. http://web.archive.org/web/20080822032249/http://www.nida.nih.gov/PDF/DARHW/033-052_Kandall.pdf

  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legal_history_of_cannabis_in_Canada#cite_note-Carstairs-18 (seems legitimate after looking at additional links)

  3. http://en.copian.ca/library/research/drugs/perspect/volume1/5.htm

  4. http://bjp.rcpsych.org/content/178/2/107.full

  5. http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/anti-marijuana-ad-s-dubious-claim-a-scary-hit-with-parents-1.2876654

 

General Readings

  1. http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/obj/s4/f2/dsk2/ftp03/NQ53757.pdf
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Jesse Richard
Jesse Richard

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