How cannabis has changed since the ’60s

Detail of cannabis buds (scout master strain) on glass jar over wood background Photo by Roxana Gonzalez/Shutterstock

The times, they are a-changin’.

When Bob Dylan first mumbled that iconic lyric in 1964, he had yet to go electric, Woodstock was still five years away, and LIFE magazine was about to declare marijuana a symbol of the revolution.

And though for some it took a lifetime, that revolution has finally happened. After five decades and countless attempts at legalization, cannabis prohibition in Canada is finally over.

But if you haven’t experienced cannabis since Dylan became the “spokesman of a generation” and you’re thinking of dipping your toes during your next weekend at the lake, you should be aware that a lot more than the laws are different. Here are the most profound ways the times have truly changed.

Legalization doesn’t mean “fewer laws”

When cannabis first became illegal in Canada in 1923, most Canadians had never heard of it. In fact, the first time Canadian police had to seize cannabis was more than a decade later, in 1937. But that all changed during the counterculture movement of the 1960s, when educated young people of higher means began to embrace marijuana, along with clothing, music and a lifestyle that their conservative parents didn’t understand. The Canadian government responded to the new awareness with stricter laws, including six months imprisonment and a $1,000 fine for small amounts of the suddenly popular plant.

From there, convictions increased drastically throughout the ’60s, from 20 cases in 1962 to 2,300 in 1968. By 1972, Canadian courts saw 12,000 cannabis-related convictions.

The fight for legalization began in large part after cannabis use spiked in the ’60s, but most of the cries for decriminalization quickly burnt out. But during the 2015 election, citing concerns over the illegal market, Justin Trudeau proposed Canada-wide legalization that would go beyond the medical cannabis market. Legal cannabis consumption arrived in 2018, and with it came a new set of laws. Possession limits were set (30 grams of dried flower or an equivalent non-dried form, like oil), impaired driving laws had to be reassessed, and penalties for providing cannabis to anyone below the age of 18 had to be strictly enforced.

But those were just the basics. Canadian lawmakers also had to consider public consumption, advertising regulations, domestic and international travel, and countless other fine-print issues surrounding legalization. While you can no longer be arrested for smoking or possessing limited amounts of cannabis in Canada, you can still be fined or fired depending on bylaws and company policies.

A new consumer experience

 Walk into any government-run or private retail cannabis store today, and you can expect to leave with a quality product that’s void of stems, seeds and any other non-smokable part of the plant. That wasn’t so for most cannabis users in the ’60s, when “knowing a guy who knows a guy” was the black-market entry point, and people who partook would often purchase whatever was available.

The halfway point between the old way of purchasing cannabis and the new legal way was the emergence of black-market shops that began popping up in bigger cities not long after Trudeau declared his intent to legalize. These storefronts were illegal, and they were regularly raided by law enforcement.

Now that cannabis is officially legal, how it’s sold differs depending on the province. But with online stores in every province and territory, and storefronts continuing to open across the country, buying cannabis has never been easier. Eventually the novelty will wear off, but for now you can expect a surreal experience the first time you walk out of a store with a product that was illegal just a short time ago.

Meet your “budtender”

 For anyone in the ’60s, the prospect of walking into a government-run store and perusing a menu of cannabis products with different attributes and flavour profiles would have sounded like something from the streets of Amsterdam. From deciphering THC and CBD to choosing between Indica and Sativa, today’s cannabis menus offer a lot more than the old way of doing things.

There was once a time when beer was just beer, and the evolution of cannabis has followed suit—in the era of IPAs and craft beers, craft cannabis is quickly catching up. But variety is the spice of life and having options has made cannabis consumption more palatable for everyone. Some cottagers want the munchies; others want to relax on the dock after a hard day of DIY projects. Some want deep, pain-free sleep, while others want to stare at the stars above the glow of the campfire. Because of legalization, it’s possible to customize your experience.

Say goodbye to the stigma

Despite decades of propaganda in Canada—starting in the 1920s when police magistrate Emily Murphy penned a series of anti-cannabis articles for Maclean’s magazine—we now know that cannabis won’t turn you into a crazed killer, and that it won’t perma-fry your brain. But the stigma was much stronger in the ’60s. Fictional characters like Maynard G. Krebs, the lazy “beatnik” on CBS sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959-63), helped to solidify the image of cannabis users as deadbeat layabouts, and insults like “pothead,” “burnout,” and “dirty hippy” entered popular culture.

Yes, burnouts still exist, but for every negative stereotype, there’s a successful CEO. From Bill Gates and Steve Jobs to Richard Branson, there are a number of successful, passionate, and inspiring leaders who’ve supported legalization.

The neighbours won’t mind

According to StatsCan, there was an unsurprising surge of cannabis use in the second half of the 1960s, with more than 45 percent of Canadians aged 18 to 24 trying it. Experimentation for that age group declined in the ’70s and remained fairly level, despite another dip during the ’90s. By 2012, approximately 3.4 million Canadians admitted to having used cannabis in the past year, meaning the stigma may have always been overblown.

Still, people who used cannabis outside of the medical framework before legalization often felt the need to hide it. Even in the relative isolation of cottage country, cannabis could carry a potent aroma, wafting across the lake and making quiet consumption a challenge for anyone with nosey cottage neighbours. But with legalization comes the end of the taboo, so enjoying cannabis on the dock won’t produce the feeling that someone is watching you. It’s a luxury we never knew we needed, but it’s made an already relaxing act even more so.

The future is edible

 The next phase of legalization is set to include edibles, which can mean everything from THC-infused gummies to cannabis-infused sugars. Edibles have more precise cannabis doses, like oils, making it easier to know what you’re getting into—which is helpful, because the experience of edibles can be quite powerful. Exact-dose edibles can also help you understand how to use cannabis for the desired benefits, whether you want to treat pain or simply unwind at the lake.