History Slam 216: Heroin & the History of Canada’s Drugs Laws & Use

By Sean Graham

In recent years, there has been no shortage of news stories on opioids and overdose deaths in Canada. What tends to be missing from these reports, however, is the historical context that shapes public understanding of these issues. The legal, social, and cultural processes that have shaped both access and perception of drugs and drug use in Canada require a critical assessment as communities across the country work towards reducing lethal outcomes.

A good source for that context comes in Susan Boyd’s new book Heroin: An Illustrated History. In tracing the history of heroin from a prescription medication to an illegal substance, Boyd explores the failure to address overdoses, arguing that criminalization and resistance to harm-reduction policies, including safe consumption sites, prevent the implementation of viable solutions. While exploring how issues of race, gender, and class create further legal and cultural inequalities, Boyd provides an outstanding overview of how the past influences contemporary perceptions of such a pressing national issue.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Susan about the book. We discuss the introduction and medicinal use of heroin (10:17), prescription v. elicit heroin (14:26), and prejudice within heroin legislation (24:01). We also chat about how HIV changed public perception of heroin use (29:38), efforts to punish drug manufacturers (36:25), and supervised consumption sites (52:33).

Sean Graham is a historian of Canadian broadcasting, an Adjunct Professor at Carleton University, and a contributing editor with Activehistory.ca

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