Between January 2016 and September 2020, almost 20,000 people in Canada were reported to have fatally overdosed — deaths that have skyrocketed since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.1 In Toronto, calls to paramedics for suspected overdoses were 90% higher in 2020 than in 2019, and paramedics attended a record nu mber of fatal overdose calls in 2020 and 2021.2
While the toxic drug supply is largely responsible for these dire numbers, the illegal market is driven by Canada’s long-standing policy of criminalizing drugs and the people who use them. In 2018 alone, there were 6,712 drug arrests in Toronto.3 This punitive approach fuels stigma and discrimination and pushes some people to use their drugs in isolation, compromising their ability to take vital safety precautions and deterring people from essential health care and social supports. Having exacerbated epidemics of HIV and hepatitis C, drug prohibition is now worsening other public health crises.
Drug prohibition also disproportionately affects Black and Indigenous people. While they are not more likely to commit drug offences, Black and Indigenous people are more likely to be charged for drug offences in Canada. In Toronto, data collected from 2003 to 2013 by the Toronto Police Service indicate Black people with no history of criminal convictions were three times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white people with similar backgrounds.4 Similarly, a 2019 study of cases between 2007 and 2013 found that Black youth accused of cannabis possession in Ontario were more likely to be charged and less likely to be cautioned than youth from other racial backgrounds.5 A 2020 study found that Black and Indigenous people continue to be overrepresented in cannabis possession arrests across Canada.6