Akwasi Owusu-Bempah is a faculty member in the department of sociology at the University of Toronto and race equity lead at the Centre on Drug Policy Evaluation. Alex Luscombe is PhD candidate in the Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies at the University of Toronto.
Drug prohibition in Canada has always been about race. Our first national drug law, the Opium Act of 1908, was introduced as a way to control the Chinese community. following the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Chinese labourers had been recruited in sizeable numbers to work on the railroad but were seen as an unwelcome threat to the employment prospects of white men following the completion of the project in the early twentieth century.
Our first cannabis laws were introduced in the 1920s following the racist musings of Emily Murphy published in Maclean’s magazine and later compiled in her book The Black Candle. Ms. Murphy suggested Black people and racialized immigrants were decaying the moral fabric of Canadian society and corrupting white women and girls by introducing them to drugs. Of course, Ms. Murphy had no empirical evidence to support her case, but her writings nonetheless made their way into the popular imagination.
Later policy shifts, including prime minister Brian Mulroney’s declaration of a “war on drugs” in Canada in 1986, resulted in dramatic increases in the number of Black people being sent to prison for drug-related offences. Vice News, which reported on racial differences in cannabis arrests prior to legalization, has published new data showing that Black and Indigenous people are significantly overrepresented in drug possession arrests in cities across Canada.
As politicians, policy makers and members of the public look for ways to reduce racial inequality in our society, our drug laws should be front and centre. Racial disparities in drug possession arrests are troubling because of what we know about patterns of drug use. Available evidence from Canada and other countries such as the U.S. and U.K. shows that rates of drug use are relatively similar across racial groups. Racial differences in drug arrests stem largely from racially biased policing practices. Black and Indigenous people are more likely to be stopped by the police, which means they are also more likely to be caught in possession of drugs. In fact, stereotypes connecting race with drug use drive the police to initiate more contact with Black and Indigenous people in the first place.
A second reason for the disparities in arrests is the fact that Black and Indigenous people are more likely to experience homelessness and poverty. Middle and upper-class drug users can call on delivery services to obtain their drugs and have the benefit of being able to consume them in private spaces. They run little risk of drug-related contact with the police as a result. On the other hand, the underhoused and the people who live in dense apartments and multigenerational homes are pushed into the streets to buy and use their drugs, increasing their chances of being caught by the police.
In essence, we’re criminalizing poverty and making it less likely that the people with criminal records for drug offences will be able to contribute to our society. People who are criminalized have more difficulty completing their education, finding meaningful employment, securing housing and doing many other things that most of us take for granted. People with criminal records also have a greater likelihood of future contact with the justice system and are more dependent on the state for support.
These are not the only reasons we should overhaul our drug laws. Drug prohibition has done little to curtail drug use while at the same time allows a multi-billion-dollar unregulated (illegal) drug market to flourish. This illegal market is naturally attractive to criminal organizations, which use violence to protect their business and may use drug proceeds to fund other criminal endeavours. Unregulated markets are susceptible to toxic drug supplies, which combined with the big-pharma fuelled opioid dependency and overdose crisis, claimed the lives of approximately 27,000 Canadians between Jan., 2016, and Sept., 2021, according to Statistics Canada.
Finally, we believe we should move beyond prohibition because people should be able to choose what substances they put into their bodies and when and how they choose to alter their consciousness. This argument is well articulated by celebrated neuroscientist Carl Hart in his recent book Drug Use for Grown-Ups. In dispelling many of the myths we’ve been taught about drugs and drug use, Dr. Hart correctly points out that our drug laws, rather than drugs themselves, are the cause of a great deal of social harm and suggests that personal happiness can be found through responsible drug use.
Whatever your take on drug use might be, it is undeniable that the enforcement of our drug use is biased and needs to change.
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