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 altogether. However, because cannabis was specifically mentioned in the 1961 Convention, the 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 offenses. It is submitted that these obligations relate only to behaviors 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 offenses.

The obligation to limit the possession of cannabis products exclusively to legally authorized medical and scientific purposes refer to administrative and distribution controls, and although it may require the confiscation of cannabis possessed without authorization, it does not bind Canada to criminally penalizes such possession.”