Cannabis has a rich history that is not often talked about out loud. Yet the plant and humans share a common characteristic: the presence of cannabinoids in their chemical makeup. That is, the human body itself produces cannabinoids through an important system called the endocannabinoid system (ECS).
So, if this is all natural, why has cannabis use been prohibited for almost 100 years in Canada?
The ECS plays a crucial role in maintaining our body’s equilibrium by promoting recovery from stress, protecting the nervous system and immune response, and stabilizing physiological constants. Made up of several small receptors, it can be stimulated by molecules like THC and CBD. However, before research was able to demonstrate this, cannabinoids had a totally different reputation. We demystify the history of this centuries-old plant whose benefits are now recognized.
In the beginning, there was a plant
According to a study based on an analysis of plants from all over the world, humans first cultivated cannabis in China 12,000 years ago. The plant has been used for thousands of years for textiles and for its medicinal and psychotropic properties.
At the beginning of the 20th century, cannabis was consumed freely, without penalty, in Canada.
Then came the fear of the unknown
It was not long before the plant’s destiny would change.
In 1922, at the height of prohibition in the United States, the first female Canadian judge and activist, Emily Murphy, published a book called The Black Candle, which stated that “when people are under the influence [of marijuana], they become raving maniacs who are liable to kill or indulge in any sort of violence.” As implausible as these statements may seem today, they helped to create a climate of fear around cannabis at a time when our neighbours to the south were also seeking to eradicate it, partly due to racist motivations.
The following year, while the prohibitionist movement was gaining momentum throughout North America, the first law criminalizing several drugs, including cocaine and opium, came into effect in Canada. Cannabis was included in the legislation at the last minute.
And then there was light
After spending decades in the shadows, marijuana became a symbol of counterculture in the 1960s, embraced by a following that included mostly hippies and famous artists such as David Bowie, Iggy Pop and The Beatles. Often linked to creativity, the substance has, according to popular history, served as the inspiration for many creative works, especially in art and music. In fact, some research has shown that cannabis use stimulates blood flow to the brain. In small doses, it may promote divergent thinking – a cognitive process that is considered an indicator of a person’s creative potential and leads to the generation of multiple ideas or solutions for a given situation.
Noting, among other things, that the plant does not cause the violent behaviour attributed to it 50 years earlier, Pierre Elliott Trudeau introduced a bill in 1973 to decriminalize cannabis. However, the government did not act on it and it was not until October 2018 that his son Justin Trudeau succeeded in getting legalization enacted. Quite a long detour to return to where it started.
Since then, science has made significant progress
Although each individual’s endocannabinoid system receptors react differently when they come into contact with marijuana molecules, many now recognize the benefits of this plant. Because it stimulates the functioning of the ECS, cannabis may relieve chronic pain and the side effects of chemotherapy, in addition to being useful for many conditions such as multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s.
Recognition of the therapeutic benefits and acceptance of recreational use has paved the way for innovation in the pharmaceutical sector. Today, cannabis comes in a variety of formats – dried flowers, oils, sprays, capsules, edibles and beverages – available at many licensed outlets across the country. Emily Murphy must be turning in her grave.
Curious to learn more? Here are our sources.
- Le cannabis domestiqué il y a 12 000 ans en Chine
- L'histoire de la criminalisation des drogues racontée par Marcel Martel
- Cannabis can make you more creative—but it’s complicated (Content is available in English only; accessible if the selected province is not Quebec.)
- Cannabis : 10 usages thérapeutiques avérés ou à l'étude
- Le cannabis et votre santé