Heroin and the illegal drug overdose death epidemic: A history of missed opportunities and resistance

Protestors holding a sign reading "safe supply not left to die"

By Susan Boyd


Due to prohibitionist policies and practices, a poisoned illegal drug supply, and inadequate access to flexible substitution programs, Canada is currently experiencing the worst illegal drug overdose death epidemic in its history. In examining past policies, practices, and discourse that support heroin regulation and drug prohibition, the drivers of the current illegal drug overdose death epidemic in Canada are brought more clearly into focus.


This article provides a critical socio-historical analysis of heroin (opioid) regulation with a focus on Canadian federal and provincial policies in the province of B.C., especially the city of Vancouver. Drawing from primary and secondary sources, this article provides a critical socio-historical analysis of heroin (opioid) regulation in Canada.


Examining Canada’s history of heroin criminalization provides a window to understand the systemic discrimination against people who use illegal heroin and other opioids. From its inception, heroin prohibition has worked to brutally punish a small segment of the population, especially those who are poor, racialized, and gendered. Negative heroin discourse and stereotyping about people who use heroin had an effect, shaping drug law, policing, prisons, and policy and treatment options.


Little attention has been given to the increase in heroin possession offences across Canada over nine consecutive years and the lack of heroin substitution programs. Resistance to drug prohibition and criminal approaches to drug use emerged in the 1950s and continue today. Those most affected by drug policies demand inclusion and representation, access to a legal heroin supply, and the establishment and maintenance of heroin buyer clubs, contesting the very foundations of drug control in the twenty-first century.

This article was part of a Special Issue in the International Journal of Drug Policy. Read the full Special Issue here.