In a previous post I provided the report from Deputy Minister of Labour, William Lyon Mackenzie King, which is often cited as instigating Canada’s drug prohibition regime. Such a perspective is a distortion of the complex history of drugs in Canada.
There are a few things to clarify.
First, prior to 1908, most drugs that went on to be strictly controlled after 1908 were already under tight regulation. These regulations were created under provincial pharmacy acts, all of which included a schedule of drugs (called poisons) that could not be purchased except under a physician’s prescription or, in some cases, by people known to the pharmacist. Each province had its own poisons schedule, but all of them included things like various opioids, cannabis, and later cocaine.
There was a caveat, however. Whereas individuals could not access the drugs on the schedule in raw form, or in combinations put together by a pharmacist, unless those criteria listed above were met, they could access them by purchasing pre-mixed products, called proprietary or patent medicines. (We use both terms because “patent” suggests the manufacturer held a patent on the product, but this was not usually the case. More accurate is to call them proprietary, because the knowledge of what was in them was “proprietary knowledge” of the manufacturer. You’ll see people talk about “patent medicines” but it is not always accurate. Still, it’s a short form so now you know.
These products, which I’ll shorten to PPMs (even though I despise acronyms) were problematic. Although some were legitimate products that aimed to address a specific illness (Dover’s Powder is the classic, a cough medicine well known to be based on opium, which is a kick-ass cough suppressant) but many more were dubious, with many dubious claims to treat all sorts of illnesses, and potentially cause more trouble than good.
One example is in the notorious alcoholism cures that contained high amounts of alcohol. So sure, if you were concerned that your son was drinking too much, you could give him this and he’d stop drinking… at the pub, maybe, but would still be drunk.
By the end of the nineteenth century, people were especially becoming concerned with remedies that had cocaine in them. Cocaine is a great topical anaesthetic, useful for delicate surgeries like dental and optical procedures. It also has this great characteristic to reduce sniffles and mucous accumulation in the sinuses. When snorted. Catarrh cures were big business in an urban world where pollution was rampant.
But these catarrh cures also gave people a buzz and a pick-me-up and in that urban world of competition, you needed a pick me up to stay competitive. So very quickly after cocaine was introduced, people began to notice that it could have an addictive effect, making people take it a lot and want more.
So by the turn of the century, there was a call to have some kind of regulation on proprietary medicines. Some wanted the full recipe on the label (manufacturers didn’t like this). Some wanted at least specific ingredients to be listed (say, opium, alcohol, cocaine). Others thought it would be enough for the recipe to be registered with a government agency (kept secret) in order for the product to be legally sold.
After attempts to impose restrictions through pharmacy laws (even though many pharmacists opposed them since many pharmacists also made their own proprietary products and didn’t want to reveal the ingredients, which was their proprietary knowledge, the initiative went to the Dominion government.
In 1908, after several previous failed attempts, the Proprietary or Patent Medicine Act became law. It totally banned cocaine from being included in such products, allowed alcohol only in amounts necessary to be used as a solvent (to dissolve other drugs) and required all products listed in a schedule to be noted on the label. It also required manufacturers to send the product to the government for testing, attest that the product was not violating the law, and obtain a certificate from the federal government demonstrating that the company had followed the rules. Hello bureaucracy.
It was passed in the same session as the Opium Act, but, unlike the other drug law, it was passed after extensive debate. I reason that the legislators already had discussed at length the problems of drugs when debating the PPM Act, so they didn’t need to go over the same ground with the Opium Act, but that is my own take on it. I talk about this process at length in my book When good drugs go bad.
The law as it was passed.
Note, it may be found on archive.org beginning on page 457:
The law, extracted from the annual publication of legislation passed in the year, is here.