Marijuana has been used as a source of medicine for centuries – a common medicinal plant for the ancients. Even as technology became part of how we live, it was considered a viable treatment for many ailments. However, in 1923, the Canadian government banned marijuana. Although marijuana cigarettes were seized in 1932, nine years after the law passed, it took fourteen years for the first charge for marijuana possession to be laid against an individual.
In 1961, the United Nations signed an international treaty known as the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which introduced the four Schedules of controlled substances. Marijuana officially became an internationally controlled drug, classified as a schedule IV (most restrictive).
Also included in the treaty is a requirement for the member nations to establish government agencies in order to control cultivation. As well, the requirements include criminalization of all processes of a scheduled drug, including cultivation, production, preparation, possession, sale, delivery, exportation, etc. Canada signed the treaty with Health Canada as its government agency.
Due to its medical applications, many have tried to get marijuana removed from the schedule IV classification or from the schedules all together. However, because cannabis was specifically mentioned in the 1961 Convention, modification would need a majority vote from the Commissions’ members.
Canada’s Changing Medicinal Marijuana Laws
The wording of the Convention seems clear; nations who sign the treaty must treat marijuana as a Schedule IV drug with the appropriate punishment. However, several articles of the treaty include provisions for the medical and scientific use of controlled substances. In 1998, Cannabis Control Policy: A Discussion Paper was made public. Written in 1979 by the Department of National Health and Welfare, Cannabis Control Policy summarized Canada’s obligations:
“In summary, there is considerable constructive latitude in those provisions of the international drug conventions which obligate Canada to make certain forms of cannabis-related conduct punishable offences. It is submitted that these obligations relate only to behaviours associated with illicit trafficking, and that even if Canada should elect to continue criminalizing consumption-oriented conduct, it is not required to convict or punish persons who have committed these offences.
The obligation to limit the possession of cannabis products exclusively to legally authorized medical and scientific purposes refers to administrative and distribution controls, and although it may require the confiscation of cannabis possessed without authorization, it does not bind Canada to criminally penalize such possession.”
Scientific study continued on the medicinal uses of marijuana. In August 1997, the Institute of Medicine began a review to asses the scientific evidence of marijuana and cannabinoids. Released in 1999, the report states:
“The accumulated data indicate a potential therapeutic value for cannabinoid drugs, particularly for symptoms such as pain relief, control of nausea and vomiting, and appetite stimulation. The therapeutic effects of cannabinoids are best established for THC, which is generally one of the two most abundant of the cannabinoids in marijuana.”
Also in 1999, Health Canada created the Medical Marijuana Research Program (MMRP); slowly, Canada’s laws for medicinal marijuana began to change.
-April 1999 survey shows 78% percent support the medicinal use of the plant.
-May 10th – judge grants AIDS patient Jim Wakeford an interim constitutional exemption for possession and cultivation
-May 25th – House of Commons passes amended medicinal marijuana motion: “the government should takes steps immediately concerning the possible legal medical use of marijuana including… clinical trials, appropriate guidelines for medical use, as well as access to a safe medicinal supply…”
-June 9th – Minister of Health announces clinical trials program; individuals who successfully apply to Health Canada are exempt from criminal prosecution
-October 6th – 14 more individuals receive special exemptions to use marijuana for medicinal purposes.
-September 2000 – Federal Minister of Health announces government will be growing medicinal marijuana and federal regulations will be made into law
-January 2001 – Ontario court declares the law banning cultivation of medicinal marijuana is unconstitutional
-April 2001 – Health Canada announces proposed regulation for tightly regulated access to medicinal marijuana
-August 2001 – Health Canada MMAR (Marijuana Medical Access Regulations) go into affect; Canada becomes the first country allowing legal possession of medicinal marijuana
Since 2001, there has been a steady uphill climb for sufferers of many chronic and terminal diseases. A year after marijuana became legal for medical use, the Canadian Senate began pushing for MMAR reform. Others pushed for ways to legally obtain marijuana without having to grow it themselves; many sufferers, such as those with MS, were unable to grow the plant due to poor health.
In 2003, the Ontario Court of Appeal began to force changes to the MMAR. One of these changes included providing reasonable access through sanctioned providers of a legal marijuana supply.
Over the last seven years, scientists have delved deeper into the potential of medicinal marijuana for use in treating illnesses. In some cases, cannabinoids have shown the potential of being able to help cure a few diseases, which had been thought to be incurable. At the time of this writing, medicinal marijuana and the cannabinoids it contains has been used in research for many diseases, including cancer, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease, among others.