Research has shown there are significant health, social and economic harms from laws that criminalize people who consume certain drugs. In addition, some groups of people who use drugs experience more negative impacts from our drug laws than others. These include people who are poor and/or homeless, people with mental health and/or substance use issues, youth, children of parents imprisoned for drug crimes, Indigenous people, racialized groups and women.[1],[2],[3],[4],[5],[6],[7],[8],[9],[10],[11]

Health harms resulting from laws that prohibit the use and possession of certain drugs include:

  • An increase in the spread of HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases such as hepatitis and tuberculosis.[4],[12]
  • Forcing people into high-risk behaviours such as drug use in unsafe or unsupervised places, sharing previously used supplies, rushing injections or taking their whole supply of drugs at once, because they fear police.[13]
  • Creating barriers to accessing needed prevention and harm reduction services, and increasing the risk of injury, disease, and other harms.[14]
  • People who are imprisoned for drug offences have also been found to:[2],[13]
    • start injecting drugs at a younger age
    • have higher rates of HIV infections
    • engage in high-risk behaviours such as needle sharing, and
    • are less likely to participate in methadone maintenance treatment.

The use of the criminal justice system to try and address drug use, possession and distribution results in criminal convictions that can cause: [1],[15]

  • Experiences of stigma and discrimination from friends, family, and the community (i.e. negative attitudes (prejudice) and behaviours (discrimination))[16]
  • Difficulty finding housing
  • Difficulty finding a job, and moving ahead with a career
  • Travel restrictions, which can impact job opportunities
  • Barriers to family reunification and immigration.

  • Our current approach to drugs has not reduced the supply of drugs. Despite the trillions of government dollars spent trying to enforce drug prohibition, the illegal drug market continues to grow and is estimated at between $426 and $652 billion (US) per year.[17]
  • The unregulated, illegal market has produced stronger, more harmful drugs for higher profits. The unknown content of drugs is causing overdoses and other harms, as seen in the current opioid crisis.[12],[14], [18],[19]

[1] Canadian Bar Association (2017). Collateral Consequences of Criminal Convictions: Considerations for Lawyers. Accessed on Nov 22, 2017.

[2] Canadian Drug Policy Coalition (2017). Harm Reduction in Canada: What Governments Need to Do Now. Retrieved on December 7, 2017.

[3] Werb, D. et al. (2008). Risks Surrounding Drug Trade Involvement Among Street-Involved Youth. The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 34: 810–820, 2008.

[4] Open Society Foundations (2015). The Impacts of Drug Policies on Children and Young People. Retrieved on December 5, 2017.

[5] Khenti, A. (2014). The Canadian War on Drugs: Structural violence and unequal treatment of Black Canadians. International Journal of Drug Policy vol.25 (2014) 190-195.

[6] DeBeck, K. et al. (2017). HIV and the criminalization of drug use among people who inject drugs: a systematic review. Lancet 2017; 4: e357–74.

[7] John Howard Society of Ontario (2015). Unlocking Change: Decriminalizing Mental Health Issues in Ontario. Retrieved on Dec 5, 2017.

[8] Correctional Service Canada. June 2004. A Profile of Visible Minority Offenders in the Federal Canadian Correctional System. Retrieved on May 15, 2017.

[9] Government of Canada. September 2013. Aboriginal Offenders – A Critical Situation. Retrieved on May 15, 2017.

[10] Drug Policy Alliance. LGBT Communities and Drug Policy Reform: Toward a Public Health and Safety-Based Approach. Retrieved on Dec 5, 2017.

[11] Rainbow Health Ontario (2014). Evidence Brief: LGBTQ People, Drug Use & Harm Reduction. Retrieved on Dec 5, 2017.

[12] Transform Drug Policy Foundation. Count the Costs: 50 Years of the War on Drugs. Retrieved on February 7, 2017.

[13] Stevens, A. (2011). Drugs, Crime and Public Health: The Political Economy of Drug Policy. London: Routledge.

[14] Canadian Public Health Association (2014). A New Approach to Managing Illegal Psychoactive Substances in Canada. Retrieved December 6, 2017.

[15] DeVillaer, M. (2017). Cannabis Law Reform in Canada: Pretense & Perils. Hamilton Canada: McMaster University.

[16] Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Mental Health and Addiction Information: What is Stigma? Retrieved on December 6, 2017.

[17] Global Financial Integrity (2017). Transnational Crime and the Developing World. Washington, DC.

[18] Canadian Public Health Association (2017). Position Statement: Decriminalization of Personal Use of Psychoactive Substances. Retrieved on February 7, 2017.

[19] Global Commission on Drug Policy (2017). The Opioid Crisis in North America. Retrieved on February 7, 2017.

Harms Associated with Drug Laws

Toronto Public Health would like to thank the members of the Public Health Approach to Drug Policy Steering Committee for their assistance in developing this fact sheet.

April 2018