Celebrating 20 Years of Legal Medical Cannabis


Celebrating 20 Years of Legal Medical Cannabis

Brain surgery. Police raids. A charter challenge. And more. Discover the story behind the court case that led to the legalization of medical cannabis in Canada—and how far we’ve come in the twenty years since. 

Search and seizure

On July 18, 1996, police entered the Toronto home of a man named Terrance Parker. They seized 71 cannabis plants and charged Parker with possessing and cultivating cannabis. 

The incident might never have made a ripple beyond the police blotter, but Terrance Parker (Terry, to his friends) was no ordinary pot dealer. 

A different type of seizure

Terry had developed epilepsy at age four, after being hit in the head by a swing. Heavy doses of prescription drugs had failed to control his seizures; so had two rounds of brain surgery. He had been hospitalized more than 100 times due to injuries sustained during seizures, and had been robbed while unconscious and arrested for being drunk in public when police mistook his symptoms for intoxication. 

Cannabis was the one thing that he found reliably reduced the frequency and intensity of his seizures. He even obtained a prescription from his doctor for cannabis—though he had no legal way to fill it. 

Terry tried buying from street dealers, but found their product to be inconsistent and ineffective, so he turned to growing his own, reliable plants. (Acting out of compassion, he also supplied cannabis to other epileptics.)

Taking a stand

Due to his life experience, Terry believed deeply in the medical value of cannabis and so, in spite of the charges laid against him, he refused to stop cultivating. 

The police raided his home again, laying new charges that led to a trial during which Terry asserted that depriving him of cannabis violated his charter rights to “life, liberty and security of the person.”

The judge agreed, finding Terry had a legal excuse for growing and using cannabis. The court exempted Terry from the provisions of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, and stayed the charges against him. 

An appeal with broad consequences

The Crown appealed the decision, but the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld the judge’s ruling—and went further, striking down the cannabis-related provision in the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, saying they “force[d] Parker to choose between commission of a crime to obtain effective medical treatment and inadequate treatment.” The court expanded on this, saying that the law “also infringes the rights of others suffering other illnesses.”

The decision, declaring cannabis laws invalid in application to Terry and other medical users, effectively ended the prohibition of cannabis use for medical purposes.

The date was July 31, 2001.

New regulations, new treatment options

Following the ruling, the federal government could have appealed further. Instead, it created new regulations to enable those with a medical need for cannabis to access it legally. 

Subsequent governments have upheld and augmented these regulations, and twenty years later, hundreds of thousands of Canadians now enjoy simple, legal access to medical cannabis. In fact, according to data collected by Health Canada, there are, as of this writing, approximately*:

These numbers represent the outcomes of consultations between patients and the thousands of Canadian healthcare providers who have come to recognize the value of integrating medical cannabis into treatment plans for a variety of conditions.

As a country, we have come a long way since Terrance Parker was forced to supply for his own medical needs with a home-grow of 71 illicit cannabis plants. Activists, scientists, politicians, and everyday Canadians have worked together to expand knowledge, reduce stigma, embrace compassion, and improve the quality of medical care for those most in need. 

* These figures reflect data reported through the Cannabis Tracking System or collected in the administration of the Cannabis Regulations. Verification and validation of this data is ongoing. As such, the data is subject to revision.