Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

The main comparison people make with cannabis legalization is the legalization of alcohol after prohibition.United Church of Canada Archives

Dan Malleck is an associate professor at Brock University and author of Try to Control Yourself: The Regulation of Public Drinking in Post-Prohibition Ontario and When Good Drugs Go Bad: Opium, Medicine and the Origins of Canada’s Drug Laws.

The Cannabis Act has passed, a date is set for the introduction of legal recreational cannabis across the country: What comes next? Full drug legalization? Easy access to narcotics, psychotropic escapism, values corroded, families torn apart, Canada spinning into the abyss?

Remember this feeling; log these concerns. Because this is similar to how people felt nearly a century ago. Then the drug was alcohol and the worries were much more profound. Social decline, moral corruption, economic collapse, national disaster – these were the concerns that drove liquor prohibition, shaped post-prohibition regulation and provided a template for cannabis legalization.

The main comparison people make with cannabis legalization is the legalization of alcohol after prohibition. Although they are different substances, many of the issues are similar enough that understanding the past might help us understand what is going on now, and what comes next with respect to cannabis legalization.

Canadian provinces began passing prohibition laws early in the 20th century, but during the First World War the federal government mandated that all provinces pass prohibitory laws. This law set an end date to one year after hostilities ended. Immediately after November, 1919, Quebec legalized the sale of beer, cider and light wines, retaining a prohibition on spirits until 1921. That year, British Columbia followed suit, and the end of prohibition rolled generally west-to-east across the country. Ontario ended it in 1927. For the record, Prince Edward Island was the last to go, ending prohibition in 1948.

The end of prohibition allowed most governments to reconsider the way liquor was distributed. Most provinces decided to distribute liquor through provincially run outlets. In Ontario, the provincial store system was joined by a private co-operative brewers’ warehousing system, which led to the current private Beer Store system.

In most provinces, when prohibition ended, it permitted sale for private use, but not public drinking of liquor. In B.C., the “beer parlour” model debuted in 1925. In Ontario, it was introduced in 1934, mostly in hotel beverage rooms. (Alberta legalized both general sale and public consumption the same year; in Quebec, the distinction was not made in 1919, making Montreal the go-to place for American musicians seeking legal booze during their country’s long prohibition.)

Although prohibition is a notable benchmark, many post-prohibition changes were not radical breaks from the past. For example, in Ontario placing public drinking in hotels was not an innovation, it was a continuity. From at least the 1870s, the hotel beverage room was the main public place for Ontarians to drink alcohol. Standalone drinking spaces – saloons – were few, limited by law, and phased out in 1897. Similarly, the provincial oversight of licensing was rooted in the 1870s. Then, owing to corrupt municipal officials issuing far more liquor licences than a community could sustain, the province took the power of licensing out of the hands of municipal councils.

The emphasis upon provincial governments taking the lead in the distribution of alcohol had a constitutional foundation. The British North America Act divided responsibilities between the Dominion (federal) and provincial governments, among which were the right of provinces to license taverns and other places for the sake of revenue generation. The Dominion’s responsibilities included “trade and commerce.”

Not surprisingly, the fact that licensing applied to places of trade and commerce meant that the provinces and the federal government ended up in court numerous times to define their spheres of influence. Most cases went through the Supreme Court and on to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, at the time the final court of appeal. By the 1890s, the provinces had secured the right to institute the prohibition of the retail sale of liquor.

Yet, the sale, prohibition, manufacture, distribution and use of substances that affect your behaviour and state of mind was not just an issue of making the right policy that respected jurisdictions. It was also an issue that drew upon powerful concerns about the future of the nation.

Before prohibition, many people were worried about the proliferation of liquor and the amount of drunkenness in their communities. This “temperance” movement had its roots in the early part of the 1800s in an effort to encourage moderation, but by the end of the century it was full-fledged prohibitionism, urging total abstinence on the part of the individual, and complete prohibition of liquor on the part of the state.

It is important to emphasize how mainstream such concerns were. Political parties on both sides of the spectrum included temperance voices. Many of the strongest came from respectable progressive leaders, who saw it to be their role to help elevate the working classes, and improve the society. These were the same class and mindset of people who supported shorter workdays, elimination of child labour, development of libraries and hospitals, and even the creation of social welfare systems. Many temperance figures had been passionate supporters of the abolition of slavery. They were not crackpots. Their goal was to improve society and, moreover, to remove the worst dangers to the economic and social elevation of the poorer classes.

Rhetorically, the opponents of alcohol voiced a range of fears and threats that “King Alcohol” posed to the individual and the nation, including financial ruin, immorality, sexual impropriety, physical degeneration and social collapse. Morality was a key concern since the moral failure of the individual led to all sorts of degeneration of the state. Health was also important, with temperance organizations emphasizing the need to include “scientific temperance” in school curricula, to indoctrinate children into the fear of what would happen to the body under the assault by liquor.

Health and morality are two intertwining concepts that continue to dog concerns about substance use, be it alcohol, cannabis, tobacco, sugar or other “harder” drugs. Health seems like an objective measure, based upon science and rational processes of investigation. Yet at the same time, no matter how objective health information may be (and we can debate that another time), this information is then used to insist or suggest a certain mode of behaviour on the individual. Health has become the new morality.

If you need examples of health as a moral tool, think of the way pregnant women are assailed not to drink any alcohol whatsoever; how overweight people are judged if they have a hamburger and fries or how people scoff at smokers. Anywhere. Transgressing established health expectations (alcohol-free pregnancy, pleasure-free obesity, tobacco-free everything) can result in shaming, isolation and condemnation, sometimes passive, sometimes aggressive.

This health/morality nexus is fundamental to cannabis legalization. The main concern of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his team was to make sure cannabis legalization followed a “public health” model, and also that it would protect children – two approaches that seem beyond criticism. Who can argue with doing something in a way that promotes health and protects our children?

Having drafted legislation that would legalize cannabis sales, created frameworks for its legal manufacture and increased criminal offences over some types of sale, for example to minors, Mr. Trudeau then punted the nuts and bolts of the implementation to the provinces. This was considered by many as a bold abnegation of the federal government’s duty, but it was in fact a constitutionally valid way of allowing the provinces to make their own choices. Residents in each province have different expectations about access to booze. Why should we assume that people in one province will accept purchase of cannabis the same way as people in another?

Yet, the moralistic rhetoric continued. When the Ontario government introduced the first locations for Ontario Cannabis Stores, people in Toronto freaked out because one of them was close to a school. Well, it was close-ish. Even after liquor prohibition, with the massive concern, the temperance movement had voiced to the proximity of liquor stores and beverage rooms to schools and churches, 450 metres was not an issue. Being across the street, or a block away was a concern. Yet, this idea that a store 450 metres from a school was going to somehow destroy the lives of children, however ridiculous, had tremendous moral power, and long legs to pedal the media cycle.

The moral fear of cannabis reaches into its manufacture. In Hamilton recently, a proposal to expand a medical marijuana facility was faced with opposition from councillors who noted that cannabis plants should not be supplanting agricultural products that “feed cities” in the green belt. They did not seem to be so opposed to farmers tearing up peach, plum and other tender fruit to grow grapes for wine. Cannabis, however, carried much more moral weight and perceived danger.

The moral fear meant that the restrictions on cannabis are so severe to be nearly dysfunctional. Since the main way of consuming cannabis has been to smoke it, the “public health” model has imposed the harshest elements of liquor and tobacco legislation on the use of cannabis. Tobacco cannot be smoked inside public spaces; alcohol cannot be consumed outside of private residences and licensed spaces.

According to Ontario’s law, as with liquor, cannabis will not be consumed in public at all; indoor or outdoor public spaces are all prohibited. This suggests again that cannabis must be worse than either tobacco or alcohol, although the type of “worse” is debatable since by every measure (except criminal), cannabis is not as socially or physically as dangerous as tobacco or alcohol.

This issue of smoking in public has been the first step toward treating cannabis as something other than a sort of hybrid of the worst elements of alcohol and tobacco. We see it with the federal government bending on the issue of selling consumables. If the main way of ingesting cannabis is to smoke it, and you don’t want to smoke indoors around children, how do you get high? We also see it with the previous Ontario government’s suggestion that they might legalize “cannabis lounges” so that people can consume their personal stash in a semi-public, licensed space.

The year after alcohol was legalized, the provincial government passed another law fixing many problems and loopholes in that first law. This is not unusual. The LCBO also tweaked and modified its rules around public drinking for the first few years after it became legal. It is entirely reasonable to expect governments, once they see how the cannabis law is operating, to modify it to make it more suitable to social expectations. In the course of these changes, old stereotypes will be discarded and new ideas of this legal substance will be implemented into law.

The unique nature of cannabis as a psychotropic that is distinct from tobacco and alcohol, and which does not have many of the same risks and physical dangers as tobacco and alcohol, suggest that in the first few years of legalization, as the moralistic rhetoric eases, and the gaps and blips in regulatory policy become clear, changes will smooth the way to a more reasonable and less onerous path to getting high, shorn of many of the worst concerns that currently drive people into the hands of the criminals.