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Excerpts from the History of Cannabis in Canada

Here you can read some excerpts from the new book: CANNABIS IN CANADA: THE ILLUSTRATED HISTORY

The complete book is over 130 pages, with every page fully illustrated, telling the hidden history of cannabis in Canada from 1606 up until modern times.

*** Note that if you are clicking through to the references, you will find many of them go to, an excellent resource which is also behind a paywall. You will need to buy a subscription to be able to view their links.


The history of Canada is deeply intertwined with the story of cannabis. This most wonderful of plants has shaped our country in many important ways. From the earliest days of our nation's history, cannabis has been a central engine of our economy and a key to political success. The story of cannabis in Canada is one of controversy, conflict and the quest for power.

Canada's first cannabis crop was planted in 1606 by Louis Hebert, a successful Parisian botanist and apothecary who was a friend of explorer Samuel de Champlain. Hebert had emigrated to Port Royal (now Nova Scotia) with his wife and children, bringing his extensive knowledge of herbs and medicines with him to the new world.

Cannabis was a crucial world commodity at the time. Cannabis seeds and flowers were used across Europe and Asia as food and medicine, but most of the cannabis grown in Europe was used to make the ropes and sails required by all navy and merchant ships.


The government of France did everything it could to push early Canadian farmers into growing more cannabis for textile exports. Most settlers preferred growing food crops and had to be coerced into growing the labour-intensive cannabis crop.

In 1668, Jean Talon, administrator of Quebec, confiscated all the thread from the shops in the colony, and declared he would sell it only in return for cannabis hemp. Without thread, colonists couldn't make or repair their clothes, and so they were forced to grow more cannabis fibre.

Excerpts from the History of Cannabis in Canada


In the early 1700s the beaver trade was collapsing, and New France was almost bankrupt. Intendant Michel Bégon tried to rejuvenate the Canadian economy by growing more cannabis for export to France.

Begon knew that the cheap labour needed to properly process cannabis for fibre wasn't available with the small colonial population. For four years he tried to buy a large number of African slaves to work the cannabis, finally arranging to have 200 delivered to the colony. However, the slaves never arrived, they were diverted to the West Indes where they could be sold for a much higher price.

Undeterred, Begon decided to help subsidize the labour costs of processing cannabis. In 1720 he offered farmers 60 livres per 100 pounds of cannabis hemp, about three times the current price in France.

Cannabis was already being grown in Batiscan and Champlain, and with the promise of fixed high prices, production soared. Instead of slaves, women and children were recruited to do the work of preparing the cannabis fibres for sale.


The Catholic Church didn't like the increase in cannabis cultivation. Priests were paid in tithes from local businesses and farmers; food crops were tithed, but other crops such as cannabis were exempt. When cannabis cultivation increased, Church income dropped, so clergy discouraged their parishioners from growing the crop. The Bishop of Quebec asked King Louis XV for authority to tithe cannabis, but was ignored.


Britain took control of Canada in 1763, and was in serious need of more cannabis fibre for their navy. Governor James Murray noted that cannabis was already being grown in Canada, and that "many of the lands are well cultivated for this production."

Murray wanted to "turn the thoughts of the people towards the cultivation of this article, so essential to Great Britain and for which she annually pays great sums to foreigners." Murray suggested that Germans and Russians skilled in raising and preparing cannabis be encouraged to settle in Canada, and that women and children could be used to prepare the fibres for export.

In 1790, Britain sent 2000 bushels of Russian cannabis seed to Quebec and offered it for free to farmers across the province. French farmers were reluctant to support the British navy by growing hemp, so only 15 farmers accepted any - the rest of it went to rot.

In 1800, the British Parliament sent two cannabis experts to Canada, promising them free land and great wealth if they could convince the settlers to grow more cannabis and teach them to do it well. Through a combination of bad seed, poor weather and spring floods, both experts failed miserably.


The British government didn't give up - they were desperate to get more cannabis growing in Canada. Britain needed hemp rope and sails to keep its mighty navy afloat.

In 1802, Canada appointed several prominent farmers to the newly-formed "Board for the Encouragement of the Cultivation of Hemp."

Big annual cash prizes were offered for the five largest cannabis fields in Upper and Lower Canada, and for the vessels that carried the biggest loads of cannabis to England.

"The cultivation of hemp is rapidly expanding in Canada, and there is much reason to hope we shall be rendered independent of the foreign markets. Several hundred tons were grown last year in the neighbourhood of Montreal, Camden, Howard on the Thames, and in many parts of Upper-Canada; and we hear with great pleasure that upwards of twenty looms and rope-walks were established during that period." - British Government Report on Hemp, 1809

"Hemp is likely to be supplied in abundance in a short time from Ireland as well as from Canada, where thousands of acres are now allotted to its cultivation... It is thought that our dependence on Russia for this article has nearly, if not completely, reached its termination. The very high price which hemp bears at this moment operates as a powerful inducement to our national agriculturalists." - National and Parliamentary Notices, March 1809


For centuries, Russia was the world's largest producer of quality cannabis textiles. Despite Canada's growing number of cannabis farms and mills, in the early 1800s Britain's powerful navy was still dependent on Russian-made cannabis rope and sails.

In response to Napoleon's rising power in France, Britain blockaded Europe with its superior navy, cutting the whole Continent off from Atlantic trade in 1806 by controlling the English Channel and the Straits of Gibraltar.

Unable to win at sea, Napoleon tried to beat Britain's navy by banning all European trade with Britain, and pressured Russia to cut off Britain's cannabis fibre supply and isolate them economically.

To get around the trade ban, Britain began capturing American ships, forcing them to buy Russian hemp rigging and deliver it to England.

After a few years, Russia stopped abiding by the embargo because the cannabis industry was too important to its economy. To beat Britain's navy, Napoleon needed to stop them from getting cannabis sails and ropes, so he launched his disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812.

America's navy was built on domestically grown cannabis hemp, processed by slave labour. Annoyed by Britain's blockade of Europe and seeing an opportunity to expand its territory, the United States declared war on Britain and tried to invade Canada in 1812, which was still scaling up cannabis production to meet British demand.


Following the War of 1812, immigration from Britain and Ireland soared, providing the cheap labour needed to spur cannabis production in Canada. In 1822, the Parliament of Upper Canada invested heavily in hemp processing machinery, and in 1823 passed a law to allow duty-free importation of hemp mills from the USA. Several Canadian new hemp mills were established over the next few decades.

Finally, Canada's cannabis industry had come of age. Farmers still struggled, but cannabis farming and processing was a substantial part of the Canadian economy. Over the next century, hemp would be grown in every province from Nova Scotia to Alberta.

Throughout the 1800s, tincture of cannabis was used to treat many different ailments. One of Queen Victoria's physicians, Sir Russell Reynolds, wrote in the first issue of The Lancet that cannabis was "one of the most valuable medicines we possess" and probably prescribed it to the queen to treat her menstrual cramps. Cannabis seed was also widely known and used as the best food for birds.


During the mid-1800s, Canadian agricultural journals documented the struggle to grow more hemp, and discussed new cultivation techniques. A popular topic was improvements in machinery to process the raw stalks with less manual labour.

Dear Sir, I send you drawings of a Hemp-Gin, invented by my brother, who is a civil engineer. This simple little machine will break and scutch at the rate of about 1,000 lbs of clean hemp per day, doing the work of 12 or 14 men. Nothing can be more simple in its construction. - The British American Cultivator, Toronto, Nov 1847

From the interest the subject of hemp has lately excited in Quebec and Montreal, it cannot be doubted that some active step will ere be taken to develop this dormant fuel of commercial opulence. The systems hitherto adopted to introduce hemp to the attention of the Canadian farmer were insufficient and defective. - The Canadian Merchants' Magazine and Commercial Review, Sept 1858

We still think that the growth of Hemp might be prosecuted to advantage on many of our rich soils. American Hemp was formerly considered of inferior quality, but new and improved processes have been introduced. It will now stand in comparison with Russian. - The Farmer's Journal of Lower Canada, March 1860

The Board of Agriculture has imported from the South a hundred bushels of Hemp Seed, which will be furnished at a low rate. Where a sufficient number of farmers undertake the culture of Hemp, the Board will insure the erection of a Break Mill in their locality. It is likewise intended to offer one prize of $50 for the Greatest Acreage placed under Hemp, and another prize of $50 for the best Sample of Hemp Fibre in quantity. - Nova Scotia Journal of Agriculture, Feb 1870

The raising of hemp on an extensive scale would prove a source of wealth to the country. More lucrative, probably, than any heretofore carried on between the mother country and the colonies. The British North American colonies, by flourishing as hemp-countries, would have a source of national and individual wealth. Canadian Farmer and Mechanic, September 1841

* Additional article from Manitoba and the North-West of the Dominion, 1876


The mid-1800s was a peak time for cannabis in Canada. Along with widespread agricultural cultivation, cannabis tincture and extracts were becoming popular medicines.

Over 100 scientific studies on the benefits of cannabis medicine were published in North America between 1840 and 1900.

Canadian medical journals regularly documented the use of cannabis extracts in treating ailments such as anorexia, tuberculosis, epilepsy, migraines, depression, menstrual cramps, foot corns, diarrhea, chronic pain, alcoholism and opium addiction.

Liquid cannabis extracts were sold without prescription at drug stores, marketed by major companies like Parke Davis, Eli Lilly and Squibb. Pre-rolled cannabis cigarettes were sold to treat asthma, neuralgia and insomnia.

The cannabis varieties grown in Canada didn't usually produce enough resin for medical use. Medicinal cannabis extracts were typically imported from India, and referred to as Cannabis Indica, or "Indian Hemp."


During the late 1800s, cannabis was regularly discussed in medical journals such as the Canadian Druggist, Canada Lancet, the Canada Medical Record, L'union médicale du Canada and The Canadian Journal of Medicine and Surgery.

In 1873, the Canadian Pharmaceutical Journal announced that Cannabis Indica was now included in the Materia Medica, on the list of "Primary Articles" for medical use.

"Cannabis Indica is a great value in treatment of migraine. The value of the drug in painful menstruation, though well-known, is not fully appreciated." -- Dr R.J. Blackham, The Canadian Druggist, July 1893

"Cannabis Indica - Its effect on the system is most marvellous. It overcomes spasms, relieves pain and all nervous irritability within a few moments after administration. Its soothing and curative effects upon the nervous sympathetic system are great. It can and should be given freely until the desired effect is apparent." -- Canada Lancet, February 1895

"Cannabis indica is less frequently employed than it deserves. Experience has proved this medicament to be particularly efficient as an analgesic in combating pain associated with spasmodic phenomena. Cannabis indica is furthermore considered one of the best remedies in neuralgia." - Dr S. MacKenzie, Canada Lancet, January 1895

The active ingredients in cannabis were not fully understood at this time, so dosages for cannabis extracts were difficult to properly standardize, leading to unpredictable results.

In 1899, Parke Davis proudly advertised in Canadian medical journals that they only used the best cannabis, and had rejected 30,000 pounds of Cannabis Indica in the past year due to low quality.

Since there was no standard chemical test for cannabis, they ensured consistent potency by testing their products on dogs. Over the next three decades, thousands of dogs were regularly fed cannabis extract and examined for effects.


One prominent 19th Century advocate of medicinal cannabis was Dr F.W. Goodwin, President of the Nova Scotia Medical Association. In 1897 he gave a lecture about cannabis to the Medical Society of Nova Scotia, later published in the Maritime Medical News. Here are some excerpts:

The drug contains an aromatic oil and a resin. Opinion is divided as to which of the two is the active principle.

The patient should be forewarned that some peculiar symptoms might arise, but be assured that there is not the slightest danger.

From half an hour to three hours after taking a full dose, the patient feels a sense of well-being, or as if he had heard "good tidings of great joy." There is a tendency to laughter, and the subject in many cases says comical and witty things.

The appetite is often greatly stimulated. After sleep brought on by the drug, the patient in many cases wakes with a ravenous appetite.

In giving anything but the smallest dose, the patient should be forewarned that some peculiar symptoms may arise. But he should at the same time be assured that there is not the slightest danger.

One need not be afraid of a fatal result. All authorities agree that enormous quantities are required to kill, and no fatal case is recorded. Nor have I read of any case where the drug habit has been brought on by its use.

A doctor who took a very large dose, to convince his patient that it was harmless, told me that under its influence the wheels of his carriage seemed to move with painful slowness, although he was going at a very good rate. Another doctor, who took an enormous dose for experimental purposes, says the second-hand of his watch seemed ages in getting around.

Cannabis indica almost invariably produces a powerful erection when the necessary mental stimulus is at hand, but it takes away the hypersensitive condition of the penis. With diminished sensibility of the penis, coitus does not bring about a premature discharge.

Goodwin recommended cannabis extracts for ailments including gastralgia, migraine, coughs, asthma, tetanus, inflammation, menorrhagia, pelvic pain, gonorrhoea and sexual impotence.