7.3 The “war on drugs”

We will start this module with a short video from the Municipal Alcohol Project and the Nova Scotia Community College.[1]

Videos like this suggest abstinence is best; however, abstinence does not work for everyone. Abstinence-based programs and policies are not evidence based, and yet are still being used to address substance use and substance use disorders. They are the remnants of the “war on drugs,” which began in the Reagan era (1981-1989) of the United States and were generally seen as failed policy.[2] The term “war on drugs” began with Ronald Reagan, the President of the United States in 1984.  His wife Nancy began a popular, yet ineffective campaign, “Just Say No”.  This campaign was based on abstinence and spawned other abstinence-based programs like DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education).[3]

Nancy Reagan Speaking at a "Just Say No" Rally in Los Angeles, California.
Nancy Reagan Speaking at a “Just Say No” Rally in Los Angeles, California. Credit: Series: Reagan White House Photographs, 1/20/1981 – 1/20/1989

Many people believe the war on drugs was an American phenomenon; however, Canada was a willing ally and created laws that targeted marginalized groups.[4]  In the 1980’s, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney invested in Canada’s war on drugs based on the false belief that communities were being ravaged by drugs, though evidence on use suggested otherwise.[5]  The war on drugs has been a world-wide phenomenon that resulted in the criminalization and incarceration of people who use substances; “historically, the principal response to illegal drug use has been enforcement and incarceration”.[6]

The war on drugs was not successful, yet it continues to have impacts on Canada’s laws, correctional facilities, RCMP and Police, healthcare, and economy.  Data from Canada and elsewhere show “this approach fails to meaningfully reduce supply of – or demand for – drugs and results in many unintended negative consequences”[7]; for example, “overdose is a leading cause of premature mortality in North America”.[8]  Consequences of the war on drugs also include incarceration and the myriad of challenges associated with having a criminal record.  Yet Canada and other countries have continued to engage in a political war on drugs though according to Mallea,[9] “it has not reduced the drug trade, eliminated production, or decreased the number of users”.[10]  Gordon[11] suggests the criminalization of substances and people who use substances has not occurred in a vacuum; it has been a “state policy that intersects profoundly with the racialized class relations of Canadian capitalist society”.[12]

 

This racialized focus in the war on drugs has resulted in over-representation of incarceration for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities.  “Racialization strengthens systemic racism and reinforces structural violence”.[13]  To understand how racialization has played a role in Canada’s war on drugs one must simply look to the correctional system.  For example, 80% of people who have been incarcerated have substance use disorders[14] and 54% of offenders were under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs at the time of the offence for which they were currently serving a sentence (Pernanen et al. 2002).  If we look at the correctional system we can see in 2016, Indigenous Canadians accounted for 24.4% of the federal prison population, though they make up just 4.3% of the general population.[15]  In 2010–2011, Black Canadians accounted for 10% of the federal prison population although Black Canadians only comprised 2.5% of the overall population.[16]  We are incarcerating people for their substance use and this racialization of the war on drugs has resulted in blackness associated with criminality.[17]

The war on drugs has been a catastrophic failure that has directly impacted BIPOC communities and indirectly impacted all Canadians; “war always destroys lives, produces a maximum of collateral damage, denies basic human and civil rights, and has little to do with justice”.[18]  Many advocates who work in the field of substance use disorders believe it is time to end the war on drugs and focus efforts on the intersectionality of the systemic issues that perpetuate substance use disorders.[19]

Food For Thought

  • How do we determine if a law or policy does more harm than good?
  • According to Husak[20], all substance use should be allowed in a free society.  Agree or disagree?  Why?
  • If you think some substances should stay illicit, what are they?  Why?
  • How might access to all substances change how people use substances?  Why?  Can you relate this to a theory?

In deepening your understanding of the “war on drugs” please review the infographic below for the impact on Canadians.

addiction treatment - war on drugs facts
Drug War in Canada infographic. Credit: Canadian Centre for Addictions. Long Description.

Image Credits


  1. Key Studios. (2014, Feb. 26). Municipal alcohol project PSA. [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HcH71oiOd48
  2. Wood, E., Tyndall, M.  W., Spittal, P. M., Li, K., Anis, A. H., Hogg, R. S., Montaner, J. S. G., O’Shaughnessy, M. V. O., & Schechter, M. T. (2003). Impact of supply-side policies for control of illicit drugs in the face of the AIDS and overdose epidemics: Investigation of a massive heroin seizure. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 168(2), 165-169. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12538544/
  3. Drug Policy Alliance. (2021). A history of the drug war. https://drugpolicy.org/issues/brief-history-drug-war
  4. Ibid.
  5. Maynard, R. (2017). Policing black lives: State violence in Canada from slavery to the present. Fernwood Publishing.
  6. Wood, E., Tyndall, M.  W., Spittal, P. M., Li, K., Anis, A. H., Hogg, R. S., Montaner, J. S. G., O’Shaughnessy, M. V. O., & Schechter, M. T. (2003). Impact of supply-side policies for control of illicit drugs in the face of the AIDS and overdose epidemics: Investigation of a massive heroin seizure. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 168(2), 165-169. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12538544/
  7. Ibid.
  8. Marshall, B. D., Milloy, M. J., Wood, E., Montaner, J. S., & Kerr, T. (2011).  Reduction in overdose mortality after the opening of North America’s first medically supervised safer injecting facility: A retrospective population-based study. The Lancet, 377(9775), 1429-37. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21497898/
  9. Mallea, P. (2014).  The war on drugs:  A failed experiment. Dundurn Press.
  10. Ibid, p. 11
  11. Gordon, T. (2006).  Neoliberalism, racism, and the war on drugs in Canada.  Social Justice, 33(1), 59-78. https://www.jstor.org/stable/29768352
  12. Ibid.
  13. Khenti, A. (2014) The Canadian war on drugs: Structural violence and unequal treatment of Black Canadians.  International Journal of Drug Policy, 25, 190–195. https://health.gradstudies.yorku.ca/files/2016/09/The-Canadian-war-on-drugs-Structural-violence-and-unequal-treatment-of-Blacks.pdf
  14. Motiuk, L., Boe, R., & Nafekh, M. (2003). The safe return of offenders to the community. Correctional Service Canada. https://www.csc-scc.gc.ca/research/sr2005-eng.shtml
  15. Government of Canada. (2019). Department of Justice – Spotlight on Gladue: Challenges, experiences, and possibilities in Canada’s criminal justice system. https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/jr/gladue/p2.html
  16. Wortley, S., & Owusu-Bempah, A. (2011). The usual suspects: Police stop and search practices in Canada. Policing and Society, 21(4), 395–407. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238046161_The_Usual_Suspects_Police_Stop_and_Search_Practices_in_Canada.
  17. Khenti, A. (2014) The Canadian war on drugs: Structural violence and unequal treatment of Black Canadians.  International Journal of Drug Policy, 25, 190–195. https://health.gradstudies.yorku.ca/files/2016/09/The-Canadian-war-on-drugs-Structural-violence-and-unequal-treatment-of-Blacks.pdf
  18. Nusbaumer, M. R. (2009).  Hooked: Drug war films in Britain, Canada and the United States. Contemporary Justice Review, 12(3), 367-369. https://doi.org/10.1080/10282580903105921
  19. Canadian Drug Policy Coalition. (2020, Oct. 5). Angel Gates: Insight from community on the devastating toll of Canada’s drug policies. [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MiWcXFvWdIc
  20. Husak, D. N. (2002). Legalize this! The case for criminalizing drugs. Verso Publishing.

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