The Evolution Of

Cannabis Culture

Cannabis has a rich and storied history in Canada, influencing the lives of many in both positive and negative ways. This is the story of how cannabis went from a medicine to a federal crime if consumed to ultimately being legalized.

The Rise Of

Cannabis Culture

I bought marijuana for the first time in the summer of 1992. It was a completely legal transaction, which as far as I knew was something you could do in only one place on earth at the time. I was in Amsterdam for the weekend with a few friends from the German military base where my father was posted, and we’d taken the train up to sample some of the city’s legendary party atmosphere. We’d heard that you could just walk into a café and buy weed, which seemed like a wild urban myth back then. But we found the famed Bulldog Café – the city’s original cannabis-friendly “coffee shop” – and inside we shuffled around looking awkward and naïve and then discovered there was a sort of sales counter, with a menu on the wall and everything.

We picked a strain at random out of a drawer full of little baggies and walked out into the warm evening to try it out. That’s when we realized none of us knew how to roll a joint. We stopped a passerby who looked hip – this being Amsterdam, it was a young woman in punk attire pushing a bicycle – and she rolled her eyes at us in a way that said tourists did this all the time and then rolled our joint for us with expert efficiency. And that was how I first encountered cannabis culture – friendly, helpful, and out in the open (with a slight edge of Dutch exasperation).

I didn’t realize it at the time, of course, but that evening in Amsterdam was a pivotal point for much more than just my own inexperienced mind. Prior to the emergence of those Amsterdam coffee shops in the 1980s, cannabis culture was mostly an illicit, conspiratorial thing, a world of shared secrets and friendly nods and small groups of like-minded souls gathered around the warming light of a single lit joint. In the years since, that culture has strolled steadily into the mainstream around the world – decriminalized in one place after another, more socially accepted by the day, and always and everywhere a welcoming community of the curious and open-minded. Another thing I’d have never predicted back in 1992: Canada has come to play a central role in this shift. Canada has been among the leaders in the push for decriminalization and then full legalization. It has become a producer of some of the world’s finest cannabis. And the emerging mainstream cannabis culture here is as robust here as anywhere on earth. I’m sure there are foreign tourists in every city in Canada today walking into cannabis shops with the same sense of wonder I had all those years ago in Amsterdam. So let’s look back at how that culture has evolved in its movement from margin to mainstream.

The Pioneers

First, let’s go way back. Cannabis culture is, in its way, as old as European settlement in Canada. The plant was first introduced here in the 1600s, but it wasn’t about the buzz back then – it was grown exclusively to produce hemp fibre, which was made into strong rope for use on ships. Hemp was so important to sea travel that in 1666 Quebec’s superintendent, Jean Talon, confiscated all the colony’s thread – a vital necessity – and would trade it only for hemp, obliging settlers to grow cannabis plants. For more than 200 years, this was cannabis culture in Canada – it was an important agricultural product, but nothing more.

Let’s skip ahead all the way to the end of the 1800s, when the psychoactive properties of the plant were first explored in medicinal tinctures, extracts and elixirs freely sold across North America. This was the same era that saw the debut of an energy drink called Coca-Cola that for a time contained actual cocaine. Alas, this marked both the beginning and the end for such a freewheeling approach to cannabis use. Canada’s first anti-drug panic took hold early in the first years of the twentieth century, directed first at opium smoking by Chinese immigrants on the west coast. When smoking marijuana began to emerge as a social custom among Mexican immigrants in the United States, it triggered a wave of reefer madness that quickly spread to Canada, even though virtually no one was smoking pot here at the time. Emily Murphy, later renowned for her central role in women’s rights, published a bestselling book in 1922 that repeated a claim by the chief of police in Los Angeles that under the influence of cannabis, users “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.” The panic was on.

Prohibition arrived in Canada with little discussion or ceremony the following year, tacked onto a new law outlawing stronger drugs. For the rest of the century, cannabis culture would be outlawed. But that wouldn’t stop it from flourishing – eventually.


If you have an image in your mind of cannabis culture in its early days, the time it comes from is likely the heyday of the counterculure that emerged in the prosperous decades after the Second World War. In Canada, recreational cannabis use was almost nonexistent before the war – there were only 25 criminal convictions for cannabis use nationwide from 1930 to 1946, not even two per year. But then some returning soldiers brought back with them a taste for cannabis acquired in Europe, and smoking marijuana slowly wafted into the new youth culture of the time.

Cannabis became associated with a certain kind of adventurous, free-minded type – the hipster, the hep cat, the beatnik – and also became closely linked with the culture around jazz music in the late 1950s. By the early 1960s, most Canadian cities had some small bohemian scene on the go, a club or bar or coffee house where musicians played wild freeform bebop for an audience that found the music’s twists and turns were brought more vividly to life with a little THC.

Montreal was already well established as a global hub for live jazz, and it had many bustling live music clubs where cannabis smoke sometimes mingled with the dense clouds of tobacco.The most memorable might be the awesomely named Rockhead’s Paradise, a three-storey cabaret in the city’s Little Burgundy neighbourhood whose stage hosted performances by everyone from Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald to local legend Oscar Peterson. (The name, incidentally, came from its founder, Rufus Rockhead, a Jamaican immigrant, First World War veteran, and former railway porter, who used the money he’d made smuggling liquor into the United States to open his club in 1928.)

If Canada’s cannabis culture had an epicentre in the Beat era, though, it was Toronto’s “Village.” This was a few short blocks of bookstores, cafes and theatres along Gerrard Street near Yonge, where Beat poets and jazz musicians mingled in bookstores and small, smoky cafes with the first generation of Canadian literary superstars like Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje. The grandly named Bohemian Embassy coffee house was the scene’s epicentre. The Embassy launched modestly as an apartment rented by a handful of CBC reporters who liked to host parties for a rotating cast of artists and musicians. They expanded to an abandoned hayloft in the alley behind their apartment building, charged two bits for a “Citizenship Card,” and hosted poetry readings, folk music concerts and avant-garde theatre performances for a crowd that was as likely to fuel the party with a few tokes of a joint as a another round of cocktails. Bob Dylan reportedly stopped by at least once, and Sylvia Fricker– who later found international fame as half of Ian & Sylvia – got her start on the Embassy’s small stage. And there at the Embassy and in a half dozen other little clubs and bars and coffee houses down the Village’s modest main drag, cannabis culture enjoyed its first full flowering in Canada.

As the fabled Sixties wore on, bohemian hipsters gave way to flower-powered hippies and marijuana became even more central to the counterculture. And in Canada, the centre of gravity in that culture moved west. The cause of the shift was the Vietnam War. By the late 1960s, British Columbia was welcoming thousands of draft dodgers and war resisters from south of the border each year, and those newcomers were particularly drawn to the remote, sparsely settled wilds of the interior of the province. The high mountains of the Kootenays became home to the most American dissenters per capita of any region in Canada, fundamentally transforming the culture of the region – and, in time, its economy.


If Canada’s cannabis culture had an epicentre it was Toronto’s “Village”.

Draft dodgers often arrived with handfuls of carefully stored cannabis seeds in their packs, and in the Kootenays they found a climate ideally suited to growing the plant outdoors. Like other global centres of cannabis cultivation throughout history – the high hills and mountains of northern India and Afghanistan, for example – the mountain valleys of the B.C. interior boast warm, wet springs, hot, dry summers, and cool autumns. These are prime conditions for growing cannabis. What’s more, there was unguarded, unpoliced Crown land in abundance. Soon, it became a sort of sprawling illicit cannabis farm. The Kootenays were thus transformed into Canada’s first major cannabis production hub and a centre of the hippie-era cannabis culture of free love, communal living, psychedelic music and mind expansion.

The communities that flourished in the late 1960s and 1970s turned the whole region into a wild-edged, experimental place. To this day there might be no city in Canada as committed still to those ideals as Nelson, the largest urban centre in the Kootenays. The wooded hills filled with hand-built dwellings where groups of like-minded souls lived off the land and off the grid. Draft dodgers joined Canadian hippies to carve out small enclaves dedicated to the radical philosophies of the age. They broke social taboos,  explored highly unconventional living and family arrangements, cultivated their own food – and grew cannabis.

Similar experiments occurred nationwide. In the wooded Eastern Townships outside Montreal and the farm country of southern Ontario, communities emerged dedicated to the same back-to-the-land principles – and similarly enthusiastic about the mind-expanding properties of cannabis. In downtown Toronto, right on Bloor Street at the edge of the University of Toronto campus, a concrete apartment tower became a vertical anarchist colony called Rochdale College, complete with brazen cannabis merchants. In every city and university town coast to coast, smaller knots of the turned on and tuned in filled dorm rooms and public parks with big ideas and clouds of cannabis smoke. Not far from Rochdale College, meanwhile, the enclave of Yorkville took over from the old Village of the beatniks as the centre of Toronto’s cannabis culture. Yorkville was a dense row of coffee houses and clubs that launched a wave of international pop music superstars, including Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and the Band. And it was a place where cannabis – particularly high-quality hashish smuggled in from Morocco and Afghanistan – was as much a part of the scene as tie-dye t-shirts and love beads.

The fast growth and enthusiasm of this new cannabis culture soon spread to the political arena. As arrests for cannabis possession climbed from a few dozen per year into the thousands over the course of the decade, the counterculture’s many rallying cries came to include calls for legalization. In 1969, the federal government commissioned a major study on the topic (usually referred to as the Le Dain Commission, after the name of its chair). The commission’s report, released in 1972, stopped short of calling for full legalization but did recommend that use and possession of cannabis be decriminalized. Alas, it would be a long time before the advice was taken to heart by Canadian authorities.

In the meantime, cannabis politics took to the streets. In August 1971, a hundred legalization advocates came together in Vancouver’s historic Gastown neighbourhood for a “smoke-in” – lighting up cannabis joints together publicly in protest against the prohibition. The demonstration attracted a wider crowd and then the attention of the police, resulting in a night of violence and destruction that came to be called the Gastown riots. Unfortunately, this confrontational tone and over-zealous police response would continue to dominate cannabis culture’s relationship with the law for many years to follow, as the recommendations of the Le Dain report continued to go unheeded. And a new era of fearmongering about cannabis – the “Just Say No” Eighties – soon arrived to push back at the libertine attitudes of the hippie era. For the first time in many years, cannabis use started to decline in Canada, and the cannabis culture that had grown so prominent shuffled back into the underground margins of head shops and back-alley peddlers.

This era of renewed prohibition zeal wouldn’t last, however. And the next wave of Canada’s cannabis culture would be the one that eventually ended the cannabis ban forever.

The Legalizers

Famous Steamclock exhales after a long, satisfying pull on of the stickiest of the icky.

Take a look back at the early 1990s, and there’s no single signpost that jumps out, no undeniable cultural moment where cannabis culture chose to make the transition from an underground secret best kept hidden to a brazen mainstream phenomenon demanding change. I remember it starting with a single joint passed around among friends as we sat alongside a canal on a warm Amsterdam summer night, but that’s just where I happened to find it.

The culture’s background music began to shift from hippie jams and metal chords to hip-hop rhymes and electronic beats.The talk around the plant started to include technical discussions of potency, medicinal benefits and value as a source of fibre for textiles. And Canada, which had long taken its cues on everything from initial prohibition to countercultural acceptance from the United States, suddenly became a pacesetter in the transformation.

However it happened, cannabis culture was back in full bloom across the country by the mid-1990s. A handful of fearless entrepreneurs began to open hemp and cannabis culture shops on main streets across the country, and others came together to form medicinal buyers’ clubs. The Friendly Stranger Cannabis Culture Shop – for a lot of people, including myself, the first time we’d ever seen the
phrase “cannabis culture” – opened on hip Queen Street West in Toronto in 1994. The Friendly Stranger ditched the stoner vibe of the old head shops, instead selling hemp clothing and books extolling the plant’s medicinal and commercial virtues alongside bongs and other smoking paraphernalia in a brightly lit, modern boutique. It was a shiny sign of things to come.

Hemp BC opened in downtown Vancouver the same year, and its proprietor, Marc Emery, proclaimed himself Canada’s “Prince of Pot” and soon expanded his retail business to selling cannabis seeds by mail. Emery was a natural showman and a dedicated crusader for cannabis legalization. Building on Hemp BC’s success, he opened an Amsterdam-style coffee house – the New Amsterdam Café – next door that allowed cannabis consumption on the premises and brazenly thumbed its nose at prohibition. It was also one of the first places anywhere that a curious customer could try out the first clunky vapourizers developed for cannabis consumption.

“From Halifax to the Gulf Islands off the coast of British Columbia,indoor hydroponic grow ops sprung up like spring weeds.” 

Meanwhile, in the illicit marketplace, Canada was no longer an importer of its best product. From Halifax to the Gulf Islands off the coast of British Columbia, indoor hydroponic grow ops sprung up like spring weeds, and they soon produced crops that boasted potency without precedent and quality equal to any in the world. The years of growing expertise in B.C. yielded especially abundant and sought-after fruit, and the unofficial brand name of “B.C. Bud” became known across North America and beyond as the cognac of cannabis. And the valleys of the Kootenay region continued to be a major source of highly prized outdoor-grown weed. In British Columbia alone, cannabis production was believed to be a $3-billion industry, with a third of that sold right there in the province even as the B.C. Bud reputation became gold beyond its border.

Speaking of gold, if there wasn’t an undeniable signal launching this new wave of cannabis culture, there was a crystal clear moment where it hit the mainstream. And it did so under one of the world’s brightest global spotlights. In February 1998 at the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, a B.C. snowboarder named Ross Rebagliati won the first gold medal ever awarded in the sport. A few days later, he tested positive for minute traces of marijuana, had his medal stripped, and became the most famous name at the Games. His medal was soon reinstated –marijuana, the International Olympic Committee conceded, was not considered performance-enhancing – but in the meantime the prevalence and pride of Canada’s cannabis culture became known worldwide.

Fellow snowboarders were quick to take to the press in defence of Rebagliati, pointing out that recreational cannabis use was as much a part of snowboarding as fresh powder. What self-respecting boarder hadn’t ridden up a chairlift in a haze of pot smoke once or twice? Rebagliati, meanwhile, told the Canadian Olympic Committee that “the small amount found in his system is due to the significant amount of time that Ross spends in an environment where he is exposed to marijuana users.” By which he meant cannabis culture, which by 1998 included virtually all mountain sports.

The impact of the Rebagliati incident went far beyond winter sports. It was a sort of gut-check moment for the entire country. Were we still the-law-is-the-law prohibitionists? Or didn’t we all have a connection to the wink-and-a-nod culture of cannabis use that had made the industry worth billions? Even if you didn’t partake yourself, didn’t you have a friend or three, a co-worker or spouse who smoked a joint from time to time? Or a parent or grandparent trying out a little medicinal marijuana to see if it helped with chronic pain or loss of appetite from chemo or a dozen other things?

In the end, Canada chose to be honest with itself, recognizing it was a cannabis culture coast to coast in the wake of our Olympic medalist’s moment of awkward fame. Nothing changed right away. Grow ops still got busted and medicinal marijuana dispensaries raided for years to come.But the balance had tilted. You could walk down the street smoking a joint in many Canadian cities without much fear of unwanted police attention. Hemp stores and paraphernalia shops proliferated. Medical marijuana dispensaries soon followed. Legalization became the subject of private members’ bills on Parliament Hill, and then it became part of the opposition platforms, and then the Liberals ran on it in 2015 and won. And now cannabis culture enters a new, fully legal phase.

Cannabis culture in Canada today is in flux. There remain seeds of what it has been in the past – a slight psychedelic edge here and there, a touch of the bohemian, a growing role for medicinal and therapeutic applications as well as recreational use. But more than anything, cannabis culture is a force for building community, for bringing the like-minded and open-minded together to share a few hours and an idea or two. And it’s now as Canadian – for adults, anyway – as maple syrup or a hockey game.

Words By:
Raoul Duke
images by:
Unsplash, Pexels
Stay in touch by subscribing to our newsletter:

Please increase the height of your browser to see all content.

Top Leaf Newsletter