October 31, 2012
On October 18th, 1929, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in England, the highest court in Canada at the time, made a landmark decision that would forever change the role of women in Canadian politics. It repealed a previous ruling by the Supreme Court and made official women’s status as “persons” in Canada, which meant that from that point on, women were eligible to become members of the senate.
The individual largely responsible for this ruling was the trailblazing women’s rights activist Emily Murphy, who three years prior became the British Empire’s first female magistrate. Along with four other women, who came to be known as “the famous five”, Murphy campaigned for this crucial shift in the meaning of the word “person”.
Murphy’s legacy is alive and well today, with statues and art depicting her campaign located across the country. And now, according to a recent announcement, she will also be appearing in the pages of the new Canadian passports, alongside Terry Fox.
But Murphy has another, lesser-known legacy. She is, perhaps more than any one individual, responsible for the criminalization of cannabis in Canada and the beginning of this country’s 90-year war on pot.
From 1920 to 1922, Murphy wrote a series of articles for Maclean’s magazine, which would later be collected in her book “The Black Candle”. These writings, which amounted to an explicitly racist, anti-immigrant diatribe, were aimed at “educating” the Canadian public as to the dangers of drug use and drug trafficking.
Informed by her experience as a magistrate in Alberta and a tour of Vancouver’s Chinatown, Murphy surmised that drug addiction was “a scourge so dreadful in its effects that it threatens the very foundations of civilization.”
In “The Black Candle” she argued that substances such as cannabis, opium and cocaine were being trafficked throughout the country as part of a vast conspiracy aimed at corrupting the “purity” of the white race and the destruction of Anglo-Saxon communities.
Of cannabis users she wrote:
“The addict loses all sense of moral responsibility. Addicts to this drug, while under its influence, are immune to pain, and could be severely injured without having any realization of their condition. While in this condition they become raving maniacs and are liable to kill or indulge in any form of violence to other persons, using the most savage methods of cruelty without, as said before, any sense of moral responsibility.”
Capitalizing on the anti-Chinese sentiment in Vancouver at the time, she successfully elevated and expanded upon the moral panic associated with opium to the national level and helped persuade the Canadian government to enact stricter drug laws.
In 1921, An Act to Amend the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act increased maximum sentences for trafficking and possession from one year to seven years. And in 1923, informed by Murphy’s argument and “evidence”, the Canadian government became the first western country to ban cannabis.
It is a strange and tragic irony that Murphy, who used a contrived drug scare to attack immigrants, should after all these years appear in Canada’s new passport; a document that is meant to enshrine and protect the rights of all Canadian citizens, new or old.