The current overdose crisis in Canada is the worst public health crisis that this country has faced since the Spanish Flu in 1918. Since 2016, over 14,000 people have died by accidental overdose in Canada. The majority of those deaths have been from toxic drugs mixed with fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid and its analogues; and sadly, the majority of lives lost were people in the prime of their lives: between 20 and 49 years of age. This tragedy is a catastrophic failure of our current drug policies, and if we do not overcome the societal resistance to modernizing them we will continue down this horrible trajectory for individuals, families, and communities for generations to come. Now is the time to consider a new path forward.
Modern drug policies are based on prohibition: forbidding an act or behavior by law where people face criminal penalties, including fines and imprisonment, for the contravention of that law. Canadian drug laws prohibit the possession, distribution, and production of substances without authorization. They were first envisioned in the early 1920s as a means of social control over racialized communities in Vancouver and born out of the 1907 race riots fueled by anti-Asian sentiment.1 Although drug laws today have changed somewhat, they continue to disenfranchise and adversely affect the health and well-being of marginalized populations.
"We need to recognize that it’s not deviant or pathological for humans to desire to alter their consciousness with psychoactive substances. They’ve been doing it since pre-history… and it can be in a religious context, it can be in a social context, or it can be in the context of symptom management."
Dr. Perry Kendall, Provincial Health Officer, British Columbia
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The Outcomes of Our Current System
1. Organized Crime & Illegal, Unregulated Markets
Prohibiting access to drugs encourages the creation of lucrative illegal, unregulated markets controlled by organized crime. These markets are incredibly profitable, providing an economic incentive for them to expand and diversify despite the risk of criminal penalties. Criminal organizations have come to play a large role in the production, importation and distribution of drugs in Canada.
2. Toxic Drugs
Because there are no formal rules governing the production and distribution of drugs, there is no quality control to ensure the substances available on the streets are safe. They are mixed with potent substances like fentanyl and carfentanil, which have killed over 14,000 people in Canada since 2016. Moreover, the “iron law of prohibition” is a term describing how increased law enforcement results in more potent illegal drugs. Because drug traffickers are at risk of arrest they have a strong incentive to deal in stronger, smaller quantities of drugs that can be more easily hidden and imported.
Police maintain that enforcement is directed at stopping high-level production and selling of criminalized drugs, but statistics show that it is actually the youth and poor and marginalized people who are most vulnerable to arrest.2 In 2016, for example, there were 95,417 drug arrests in Canada. Of those arrests, 73 percent were for drug possession, showing that a large portion of police and court resources are targeted at low-level offences.3 Prisons in Canada disproportionately house people of colour, Indigenous people, and women. Indigenous people account for 26.4 percent of the federal prison population, despite representing only 4.3 percent of all Canadians.
Inflated drug prices in this illegal market compel people to engage in other high-risk behaviors, like sex work and property crime, which increases the likelihood of imprisonment. The destabilizing effects of spending time in jail puts these individuals at greater risk of homelessness, social isolation, and poverty.
4. Community Violence
Because there are no rules and regulations governing how the illegal market operates, violence can be the default method for resolving disputes, enforcing payment of debts, and expanding market share. Players in this unregulated economy cannot resolve disputes in normal ways, like the courts, because the activity they are engaging in is itself illegal. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that increasing drug law enforcement will reduce violence, evidence strongly suggests that “disrupting drug markets can paradoxically increase violence.”4
5. Wasted Resources
Pouring millions of dollars in tax revenue into a criminal justice response that prioritizes enforcing drug laws also diverts money that could be spent on more important areas such as housing and healthcare, or more effective programs addressing the social factors driving substance use. Instead, money continues to be funneled to criminal justice measures that have proven ineffective at ending substance use and preventing the catastrophic loss of life currently witnessed in North America.
In Canada, it is estimated that as little as 10 percent of illegal drugs meant for this country are intercepted by law enforcement. Drugs are even available in Canadian prisons, a scathing indictment of our current criminal justice approach, which implores us to explore new ways forward. The system is broken, and collectively we can work to change it.
Our Case for Reform
The foundation of Canadian drug policies was set over 100 years ago in the early 1900s. Modernizing our drug policies to reflect the evidence and realities of our current times is long overdue. Increasingly, high-profile public health officials and politicians have joined activists in calling for a new approach to our drug policies. They and we are envisioning an approach based on principles of public health and human rights.
This means that we begin to regard drug use as a matter of public and individual health, and treat people who use drugs more humanely. The reality is that Canadians consume many types of drugs for various reasons and therefore reducing the risks associated with drug use to individuals is imperative. Substance use disorder is often a symptom of pain, trauma, social exclusion, homelessness and other factors that society must address if we wish to sincerely help communities in need.
If we acknowledge that the root of the current overdose crisis is a poisoned drug supply, then we are compelled to create a system that provides alternatives to the unregulated and extremely toxic illegal drug market through legal regulation of all drugs. Much as we do for many other activities in our society that are potentially risky, legal regulation can provide a framework of sensible rules and procedures that guarantee the potency and quality of drugs people consume with an aim to supporting public health and safety for all citizens. It will reduce the harms of a toxic drug supply as well as the violence and crime within the illegal market itself.
Creating a system in which drugs are legally available and drug possession for personal use is not criminalized would provide an opportunity to reallocate funds spent on policing and the criminal justice system towards programs to educate consumers about the risks of consuming drugs and discourage young people from initiating drug use. It might also mean that we could make widely available the comprehensive drug treatment services that are so sorely lacking across Canada.
The ongoing overdose crisis has illustrated, in the most painful way, that our current policies don’t work to protect Canadians. In fact, our current approach is causing significant harm and wasting scarce public resources. Alternative approaches are emerging and every effort must be made to support new, innovative, and bold proposals for change. We can—and must—do better.
 Boyd, Susan. Busted. Vancouver. Fernwood Publishing, 2017.
 Boyd, Susan. More Harm Than Good. Fernwood Publishing, 2016.
 Boyd, Susan. Drug Use, Arrests, Policing, and Imprisonment in Canada and BC. 2015-2016
 Werb, Dan. Effect of Drug Law Enforcement on Drug Market Violence: a Systematic Review. 2011