Own your ow legal marijuana business
Your guide to making money in the multi-billion dollar marijuana industry
Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy
Canadian Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs
Volume 2 - Policies and Practices In Canada
Chapter 12 - The National Legislative Context

1908-1960:  Hysteria


At the time of  the Shanghai Conference on opium  in 1909[1][5], European societies had known for hundreds of years about opium, coca leaves, and cannabis, having discovered them through contact with other societies. These drugs were used in medical practice, as well as by a certain worldly or artistic elite, and especially as a commercial tool by colonial powers. In the midst of advances in chemistry, the 19th century saw the arrival of a large number of new drugs–primarily opiate-based–and their enthusiastic adoption by physicians, pharmacists, general store owners and traveling salesmen as miracle elixirs. What happened so that Canada in 1908, and the seven countries gathered in Shanghai in 1909, decided to prohibit this drug? At least four factors figured in the game of chance and necessity that led to prohibition.

First of all, geopolitical issues, commercial dealings with China in particular and the political stability of the Middle Kingdom in general, played a considerable role, as shown in Chapter 19. But from a domestic standpoint, these factors do not explain everything, especially since the concerns of the Dominion of Canada and its people about international politics were still relatively minor.

Initially, physicians noticed, sometimes from their own experience as a user, that use of opium derivatives resulted in a certain degree of dependence and health problems.[2][6] At first, these cases of drug addiction were limited to the leisured classes and to artists, who were rarely labeled as delinquents. However, the increasing availability of these drugs[3][7] and the subsequent development of dependence problems within the working classes had a profound effect on public opinion about these drugs. There was no longer talk of the ill but rather of delinquents who [translation] could not face up to the demands of life as a good citizen and worker[4][8]. A few doctors, worried about protecting their monopoly, did not hesitate to demand laws from the government to restrict the use of drugs produced by pharmaceutical companies and thus avoid the propagation of this scourge that threatened the foundation of North American society.

Even though the use of opium did not result in a social crisis before the beginning of the 1880s, whites who frequented Chinese opium dens were often seen as suspicious or dangerous. At the time, [translation]“Frequenting the Chinese quarter and its opium dens is seen by several moral groups as a preference for the foreign, as willingly straying from white Anglo-Saxon values. This judgment is even more severe where women are concerned.” [5][9]

Associated with the problem of alcoholism in the working classes, the question of the use of drugs then became the metaphor par excellence for the decay of western Judeo-Christian civilization, and the favourite theme of temperance leagues in the United States as well as Canada. Born in the 19th century, these movements had a very strong religious basis, especially in the protestant ethic of responsibility for personal health through work and self control: [translation]“work and sobriety were valued as a means to avoid loss of production and to maintain the economic superiority of the white Anglo-Saxon race.”[6][10] Waging war against alcohol that causes male violence and adultery, against drugs that kill young people, and also against prostitution, cigarettes and gambling suited these movements perfectly.[7][11] From community support groups designed to help those who wanted to break their bad habits, these leagues transformed themselves into powerful pressure groups demanding the complete prohibition of alcohol first, and then supporting the prohibition of opium and other drugs.

The third factor, closely related to the previous two, was population movement and especially Chinese immigration – it would be more accurate to talk about the importation of Chinese workers. The Chinese had immigrated to the United States in the middle of the 19th century to work in the mines and build the railroads in the American West. Once these large projects were completed, certain labour disputes broke out on the American West Coast, pitching the Chinese, who offered cheap labour to owners of agricultural enterprises, against powerful unions, largely composed of white workers. Following the appearance of the union-based anti-Chinese movement and legislation that prevented any further Chinese immigration, many Chinese had no choice but to develop the opium trade in the ghettos where they lived in large American cities. The temperance movement did not hesitate to adopt the racist feeling driving certain segments of American society in order to denounce the use of opium, seen as a scourge that promoted immorality, crime and the decline of the white Anglo-Saxon race. It was in this context of social unrest, although limited to the American West Coast, that the first American legislation governing the opium trade was adopted.

In Canada, in the middle of the 19th century, the Chinese became a major source of manpower for building the Canadian Pacific Railway. As the economy of British Columbia diversified, these immigrants found work in fish processing plants, coal mines and the forestry industry, although the jobs available to them remained limited. This worsened the competitiveness of the local labour market and increased their marginalization in society.[8][12] Beginning in the 1880s, the massive influx of Chinese juxtaposed with the economic slowdown brought on by the end of construction of the Canadian Pacific railway and the economic recession that marked the end of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century caused several union and popular demonstrations demanding the end of Chinese immigration, the source of British Columbia’s economic and moral problems.

According to Giffen, this fear was not justified since white immigration from other regions of Canada more than offset the increase in British Columbia’s Chinese population. In fact, the proportion of Chinese in the province declined from 20% at the beginning of the 1880s to less than 6% in 1921[9][13], just before a clause in the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act was adopted authorizing the deportation of an immigrant found guilty of a drug-related offence.



Tolerance for the habit of smoking opium lasted only as long as British Columbia’s tolerance for the Chinese. In the early years of the twentieth century, both a labour surplus and anti-Asian resentment developed. The Asiatic Exclusion League was formed, supported by an amalgamation of the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council and federal Conservative politicians. Opposed to the Liberals’ immigration policies [under Sir Wilfrid Laurier], the league demanded an end to immigration from Asia, claiming that the “yellow peril” was about to “swallow” a white British Columbia. [10][14]


In fact, well before the development of this social crisis, the British Columbia government had tried to halt Asian immigration by adopting the Chinese Immigration Act in 1884, which imposed an annual tax of $10 on the Chinese and other Asians living in British Columbia and prohibited them from buying land belonging to the province. The federal government disallowed this Act, but in 1885 it created a Royal Commission to investigate Chinese immigration and this commission recommended imposing a $10 entry tax on every Asian immigrant. In 1885, as a result of public pressure, the federal government adopted the Chinese Immigration Act, which imposed a $50 entry tax that was increased to $500 in 1904, as many had criticized the fact that despite the imposed tariff, 20,000 Asians had immigrated to the country between 1889 and 1900.

A major incident in 1907 led the federal government to intervene in matters of Chinese immigration and labour disputes in British Columbia. During the year, a demonstration organized by the Asiatic Exclusion League and attended by more than 10,000 people, most of whom were union workers and members of the middle class, turned into a riot when the angry crowd headed into Vancouver’s Chinese district, attacking people and causing serious property damage. After convincing Prime Minister Laurier of the wisdom of compensating the Chinese, William L. Mackenzie King, then Deputy Minister of Labour, returned to Vancouver in the Spring of 1908, where he wrote a report[11][15] that would lead to the adoption of the Opium Act. Based primarily on moral, ethical, political, diplomatic and ethnic considerations, Mackenzie King’s report, rather than attacking labour disputes between white and Chinese workers, shifted the problem to opium use by Asian foreigners.


[…] the amount [of opium] consumed in Canada, if know, would probably appall the ordinary citizen who is inclined to believe that the habit is confined to the Chinese, and by them indulged in only to a limited extent. The Chinese with whom I conversed on the subject, assured me that almost as much opium was sold to white people as to Chinese, and that the habit of smoking opium smoking was making headway, not only among white men and boys, but also among women and girls. [12][16]


As in the United States, Chinese immigrants brought with them not only their labour but also their practice of smoking opium. They preferred this practice to the widespread habit of white workers of using alcohol and opiate-based drugs to cure illnesses and to momentarily forget their social and working conditions.[13][17] Thus the first opium den opened its doors in Vancouver in 1870. Some Chinese even opened factories to produce opium for smoking; the opium was then used in opium dens in Vancouver’s Chinese district or was simply sold to white clientele. As Professor Boyd mentioned during his testimony before the Committee:  


Over time, equal amounts of smoking opium were sold to whites as to Chinese. If you look back through the issues of Vancouver Province or the Victoria Times Colonist, you find advertisements. You do not find any expression of concern or anger about those smoking opium establishments, but you find advertisements. [14][18]


In 1883, there were three factories producing smoking opium in Victoria and in 1891, there were more than 10 opium dens in the Chinese districts of large cities in the Canadian West.[15][19] The surge in this industry was beneficial to the British Columbia government since it imposed a customs tariff on crude opium of 10% to 25%.


If I could turn back the clock 100 years to Vancouver, Victoria and New Westminster, I could show you opium-smoking factories which were started in the late 1870s and persisted for 30 years without complaint. The labour surplus and the depression in the first decade of the 20th century led to concerns that led to the original legislation. It is noteworthy that the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act of 1908 was introduced by the Minister of Labour. When he introduced the act, he said, "We will get some good out of this riot yet," referring to the anti-Asiatic riot in Vancouver in September of 1907.

Imagine, today, the idea of illegal drug legislation coming forward from the Minister of Labour because he or she is seeking to get some good out of a labour crisis on Canada's West Coast. The situation in California was similar. [16][20]


Even though the Royal Commission of 1885 did not recommend specific measures governing the production or use of smoking opium, it did indicate that smoking such a substance was a pagan practice incompatible with the lifestyle of a Christian nation.[17][21] According to Line Beauchesne, the crusade against opium that followed this report gradually resulted in a decline in opium smoking.[18][22] The results of an investigation conducted by the American Pharmaceutical Association in 1903 into drug use claimed that drug consumption was  widespread throughout American society, but involved two social groups more specifically: Chinese immigrants and Blacks. This study probably influenced some federal politicians and temperance movements that used similar arguments until the beginning of the 1930s to justify the prohibition of opium and other drugs.[19][23]

In short, while economic considerations were at the heart of anti-Asian feeling, temperance movements and religious groups took advantage of the situation to promote their views, not only in the immediate area of British Columbia but also across the rest of the country. These events drew the public’s attention to the “dangers” of opium for Canadian society.



[1][5]  See Chapter 19 for more details.

[2][6]  We note in passing that in fact these were synthetic opium derivatives such as morphine.  It was not discovered until much later that smoking heroin was much less harmful to the user than injecting it or using its synthetic derivatives.  We can also draw a parallel with synthetic derivatives of cannabis, which cause more problems than smoking cannabis, as we saw in Chapter 9.

[3][7] Line Beauchesne talks about large pharmaceutical companies that flooded the market by manufacturing these products en masse and then trying to dispose of them in any way possible.  Beauchesne, L., (1991) La légalisation des drogues… Pour mieux en prévenir les abus.  Montreal: Méridien, pages 95-96.

[4][8]  Beauchesne, L. op. cit., page 98.

[5][9]  Ibid.,  page 126

[6][10] Beauchesne, L. (1999) “À propos du cannabis, que faire?” L’écho-toxico, page 14.

[7][11]  Ati-Dion, G., (1999)  The Structure of Drug Prohibition in International Law and in Canadian Law (Doctoral Paper), Montreal, Université de Montréal, École de criminologie, page 24.

[8][12]  Giffen, P.J. et al., (1991) Panic and Indifference: The Politics of Canada’s Drugs Laws, Ottawa: Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, page 53.

[9][13]  Ibid., page 53

[10][14]  Boyd, N. (1991) High society:  Illegal and Legal Drugs in Canada, Toronto, Key Porter Books, page 27

[11][15] William L. Mackenzie King, The Need for the Suppression of Opium Traffic in Canada. Ottawa, Parliamentary Document 36b, 1908, 18 pages


[13][17] Beauchesne, L., (1991) op. cit.,  page 125

[14][18]  Ibid.

[15][19]  Giffen, P.J. et al., (1991) op. cit.  page 125

[16][20]  Testimony by Neil Boyd, Professor of Criminology, Simon Fraser University, before the Special Senate Committee on Illegal Drugs, Canadian Senate, Second Session of the Thirty-Sixth Parliament, October 16, 2000, Issue 1, page 49.

[17][21]   Beauchesne, L., op. cit.  page 128

[18][22]  Ibid., page 128

[19][23]  Ati-Dion, G., (1999) op. cit.  page 25

Library Highlights

Drug Information Articles

Drug Rehab