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Drugs in the US and Canada: What’s the Situation?



On June 18, 1971, the United States of America declared war. But it wasn’t on the Soviets or any of their geopolitical rivals. Rather, it was on an enemy far closer to home: drugs. About 52 years and over a trillion dollars later, what has this accomplished? Well, more harm than good, that’s what; it hasn’t yielded the results it should. 

In this article, we want to look at the drug problem not just in the US but in Canada as well. After all, guess what else both nations share, aside from a boundary: the drugs seep across that boundary! So, we will look at this problem in relation to both nations. But first, let’s take an overview of where things stand now. 

The Current Situation 

The first thing you need to know is that the US and Canada are currently quite drugged up, though one is way less so than the other. For instance, per capita, they both hold the top spot for the most opioids consumed worldwide; the US comes in first place, and Canada follows behind. 


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But to put things in perspective, let us consider the general state of affairs relative to drug use rehabilitation, drug-related incarceration, and death from drug use.


It’s probably an understatement to say the rehab industry is booming in these two nations. As many as 23 million US citizens and 6 million Canadians suffer from substance abuse disorders. There are over 14,000 rehab facilities in the US alone and over a hundred in Canada to service this growing need for rehabilitation.

But there is a problem: aside from such concerns as regulation, insurance coverage, and affordability, there also don’t seem to be enough facilities around. Notably, most substance addiction issues seem to get out of hand and require inpatient rehab treatment

As of 2020, up to a million US citizens were in one facility or the other, virtually all of them bursting with patients. Yet, millions more were left without the help they needed. It is currently projected that the number of drug addicts needing rehabilitation will only continue to increase as the number of rehab centers remains roughly stable across the US and Canada.


The war on drugs has been singly responsible for the overwhelming majority of incarcerations in the US prison system. 

Data from the National Institute of Health shows that 85% of the US prison population is either actively struggling with substance abuse or got behind bars on drug-related charges in the first place. And what is more? This group is particularly more likely to suffer from overdose upon release.

Things are much sunnier by comparison in Canada. Only 8.5% of male and 25% of female inmates are convicted on drug-related charges. And given the low incarceration rates in the country, drug incarcerations are basically nothing compared to that of the US.

Death From Drug Use

Drug deaths have been a problem in the US and Canada for a while, but you can guess which one struggles the most. Drug deaths in the US have spiked, especially after the COVID lockdowns, and nearly 200,000 people died due to drug overdose. Drugs like fentanyl are responsible for a growing number of these deaths, currently involved in almost 70% of them. 

By comparison, Canada struggles with the same problem but doesn’t struggle as much. In 2021, the country recorded about 7,993 deaths. Roughly the same was true for 2022, and the jury is still out on this year’s rates till December. However, the consensus is that the problem is getting deadlier, even if nowhere near as much as in the US.

How Did It Get This Far? 

Clearly, drugs constitute a growing nuisance in the US and Canada. But how exactly did we get this far? For one, social vices never really go away, and people just find ingenious new ways to engage in them. This is particularly likely to happen when governments mount violent pressure against drug operations, as has been characteristic of the war on drugs. 

Just like nimble and adaptable companies come out stronger from economic recessions, so will the most adaptable drug traders and distributors from any round of crackdowns. 

There’s an inverse relationship where bans on anything tend to make that thing more lucrative if you can risk a collision with the law. This effect is part of why the war on drugs has largely backfired. 

Furthermore, the war had an extreme demographic bias and seemed to favour scapegoating over targeting the problem’s root. Subsequently, communities were left with gaping holes that meant dysfunctional families with at least one person either having served time (and civilly scarred for life) or currently doing that. 

And ironically, even more people (especially single mothers and children with one or two parents in jail) were liable to fall into crime or suffer depression and seek solace in illicit substances. 

There is also the fact that the internet has made it easier to access recipes for making these substances. An experimental medicine may fail medical trials but be found to have psychedelic effects. 

Sure, the researchers will usually abandon the drug, but the research is already out in the universe. Someone will inevitably stumble upon it and realize how much money this research spells. And, of course, one cannot forget to mention the dark web and crypto networks’ impacts in making it easier to circulate these drugs. 

What Are We Doing About It?

With the war on drugs having come under increasing criticism worldwide, the US and Canada have been considering new ways to handle the drug problem. Although, the US has been less amenable to such changes than Canada. 

For one, there is the relaxation of prison sentences and the removal of extremely harsh anti-drug measures. There has also been decriminalization of some drugs, most notably Cannabis. 

In 2020, the State of Oregon became the first to decriminalize marijuana possession, followed later by States like Arizona, Montana, South Dakota, and New Jersey. Cannabis has been legal in Canada for a while now. 

Safe injection sites are known to reduce the harm associated with injective drug use, making it safer. Supervised injection sites for overdose prevention are legal under Section 56 of Canada’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA). The US has been less open to measures like this. Though sites like this exist in some cities, they’re still illegal under Federal law. 


Is it safe to say the war on drugs has caused the current drug problem in the US and Canada? It may not be accurate to say that it has; after all, other factors are at play, too. However, it has significantly contributed massively to the problem. 


This understanding of how our previous attempts to contain and solve the problem of widespread substance abuse has backfired is vital. If we can understand where we failed, it will enable us to determine what will work. 

Fortunately, the US and Canadian governments recognize this and have been trying more effective approaches. With any luck (and some hard and smart work), we might just stem the substance abuse problem and reverse the lines on the graph.

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