What is Civil Disobedience?

September 11, 2019

A group of people protesting

Photo: Becker1999/Flickr

It’s a term that comes up in our vocabulary often, and one we want to make sure remains fresh in the minds of industry professionals and enthusiasts as Canada’s cannabis regulations seem to prioritize corporate over craft. The root of many political changes, including legalization, began not with the stock market, but with something called civil disobedience.

In its simplest definition, civil disobedience is “the refusal to comply with certain laws or to pay taxes and fines, as a peaceful form of political protest”. The term was first coined by Henry David Thoreau in an essay published in 1848, after he served time in jail for refusing to pay a state poll tax that was being used to fund the war in Mexico and enforce the Fugitive Slave Law. Philosopher John Rawls described it in 1971 as “a public, non-violent and conscientious breach of law undertaken with the aim of bringing about a change in laws or government policies”. The term also implies that those who engage in acts of civil disobedience are prepared to face the legal consequences of doing so.

Some of the most well-known proponents of civil disobedience include Mahatma Ghandi, who once said that “civil disobedience is the inherent right of a citizen to be civil,” and “implies discipline, thought, care, attention and sacrifice". His peaceful sit-in protests have been repeated by activists around the world for a wide variety of causes. Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu also advocated for civil disobedience, calling to an end to apartheid by orchestrating marches and protests. In their fight for civil rights in the United States, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks also employed methods of civil disobedience to stir up protest and boycott. It’s been used to fight for peace, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, equality, land, agricultural protection, independence, bodily autonomy, arms control, food security, and, more recently, safe drug supply. It sits at the root of several social movements, and without it, our world would be a very different place.

Before legalization, smoking a joint was an act of civil disobedience: we were breaking the law because we knew that the law was unjust. The patients and consumers who have always boldly refused to adhere to government policy felt that consuming cannabis in spite of the law was a harmless infraction. In British Columbia, civilly disobedient draft-dodgers from the US would add 50,000 to BC’s population. That’s 50,000 people who refused to fight a war in Vietnam on principle, and in particular places like Nelson, helped contribute to BC’s reputation as a cannabis hotspot.

Another area that saw a population increase of draft dodgers was San Francisco, where in 1991, a man suffering from HIV opened a collective of patients and growers. While he passed away shortly after, the organization he founded, the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club would inspire the resurgence of medical cannabis use for the next two and a half decades. In that time, both courts and public opinion shifted significantly. Without peaceful protest and persistence in challenging these laws, legalization as we know it would not exist. 

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