As the summer of 2020 goes down in history, marked by the historic protests in defence of Black lives, the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter, #DefundThePolice, and #DefundToAbolish have become more than slogans; they have become visions for a radically transformed society.

For those of us involved in research, scholarship, or advocacy around the criminalization of drugs in Canada, the racial reckoning and expanding support for building abolitionist futures have made it clear: to end the racial harms endemic to policing in this society, we must abolish the war on drugs.

The fact that policing and incarceration, with historic roots in slavery and Indigenous genocide, are themselves forms of harm experienced by Black and Indigenous communities is increasingly recognized throughout Canadian society. It is this recognition, along with the historic protests, that undergirds the increasingly broad-based support for the #DefundThePolice movement. With a tidal wave of support for this movement to divest from policing and punishment and invest in supports for Black, Indigenous, and other disenfranchised communities, the call to end drug criminalization has emerged, with less media attention, as a central pillar of this iteration of Black-led protest across Canada.1

Not Another Black Life, Black Lives Matter–Toronto, Black Lives Matter–Montreal, the Defund the Police Coalition in Montreal,, and No Pride in Policing, among other organizations, have forwarded demands for the immediate decriminalization of illegalized drugs, an immediate expungement of criminal records, and a safe supply of criminalized and/or pharmaceutical drugs for drug users.2 These demands have long been advocated by harm reduction and drug user advocacy groups.3


The new wave of support to end the war on drugs and link decriminalization to racial justice is part of a broader push across North America. In the US, the Movement for Black Lives highlights the need to end the war on drugs as part of “ending the war on Black people.”4 The Movement for Black Lives’ “Policy Platform,” published after the first wave of protests in the wake of the police killings of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, and Sandra Bland in the US, forwards a demand to end the war on drugs, and to “immediately and retroactively decriminalize drug and prostitution-related offences and invest savings into programs and services identified by people in the drug and sex trades, and implement a full and comprehensive reparations package for people, families, and communities harmed by the drug war and criminalization of prostitution.”5

The demands emerging from this moment of protest ought to be taken seriously by scholars of policing, race, and incarceration in North America, and by health and medical communities more broadly. It is well-documented, after all, that drug law enforcement has been particularly harmful to Black communities. Ending the criminalization of drugs –– and moving toward a safe supply –– is of utmost importance to ending structural harms inflicted on Black communities.

The demand to end the drug war, along with decriminalizing poverty offences, sex work, and migration, has not emerged from nowhere, and compelling historical reasons exist for why an immediate end to drug criminalization and reparations are becoming increasingly central to Black liberation frameworks, briefly illustrated in the following paragraphs.

The War on Drugs Has Been a War on Black Communities

In addition to preventable overdose risk and a wide assortment of other health-related harms, the “war on drugs” has been an ongoing form of violence against Black communities in Canada. Fifty years since the war’s inception and with nearly a century of laws criminalizing mind-altering substances, Black communities are living, and sometimes dying, at the centre of an expanded criminal web facilitated by the criminalization of drugs. Drug law enforcement has been an acute form of harm experienced by Black communities, including police stops, arrests, jail, prison sentences, immigration enforcement, and social service policy.

In Policing Black Lives, I argue that Black peoples’ movement in and through public space was criminalized under slavery, which was legal and practiced in pre-Confederation Canada for over 200 years, and that the enduring surveillance of Black peoples’ lives was carried forward through the practices of carding and police killings (among others). After slavery’s abolition, criminalization and surveillance of Black men and women, in the form of disproportionate arrests and charges, was common in many cities throughout the twentieth century. The creation and development of drug laws, in particular, were permeated with racial tropes associating Black and Chinese communities with crime, drugs, and moral turpitude.6 I write, “Since the early twentieth century, the criminalization of drugs was related not to the pharmacological or social harms engendered by drugs, but was a result of anti-Black and anti-Chinese sentiment.”7

Ramping up in earnest in the 1980s, the war on drugs has caused devastating harm to Black communities, as I describe in my book: “The massive spike in Black incarceration is a direct result of successive, ideologically driven and racially enforced drug laws.”8 For the past four decades, this enforcement has facilitated the pathologization and targeting of young Black people on the streets and in their schools, and has played a role in the a massive increase in Black people’s incarceration in jails and prisons.9 Well into the 1990s and beyond, the profiling of Black men as drug traffickers and Black women as drug mules was a part of law enforcement training strategy with measurable impacts on Black incarceration still felt to this day.10

The racist and anti-Black harms facilitated by drug law enforcement have extended beyond the criminal justice system. Criminalization of drugs –– and targeted enforcement –– has facilitated the mass deportation of Caribbean-born Black people, engendering family separation for the consumption or sale of substances widely used by many white Canadians.10 The war on Black life, reinforced by drug law enforcement, not only extends beyond the criminal justice system, but its violence reaches beyond Black men, often represented as the “main target” of policing in the public imagination. While cisgender Black men have been targeted by police profiling and incarceration, they are by no means the sole focus of a racist criminal justice system: Black women have also borne the consequences of the drug war in both Canada and the US.12 Drug laws have facilitated the profiling, arrest, incarceration, and deportation of Black women13 and drug use –– real or suspected –– has contributed to the mass apprehension of Black children from their mothers,14 even though drug use in family situations is more appropriately managed with supports.15

Further, the war on drugs is a war on Black people (along with other low-income and racialized communities), a material reality far from an abstraction. As I wrote in 2017, “Fighting drug crime is not referred to as a ‘war’ by metaphor. The buying and selling of drugs is a consensual transaction. It is a crime that must be proactively sought out by police, not a violent emergency requiring heavy intervention. Still, the policing of even low-level marijuana trafficking is highly militaristic, often taking the form of heavily armed interventions by tactical squads and emergency task forces.”16 The war on drugs has not only been harmful but, in some instances, it has been fatal, including the death of Bony Jean-Pierre, a 47-year-old Haitian man shot in the head by a rubber bullet during a tactical squad intervention in a 2016 drug raid in Montreal, Quebec, and the more recent police killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, on March 12, 2020.

"The racist and anti-Black harms facilitated by drug law enforcement have extended beyond the criminal justice system. Criminalization of drugs –– and targeted enforcement –– has facilitated the mass deportation of Caribbean-born Black people, engendering family separation for the consumption or sale of substances widely used by many white Canadians."

In recent years, media investigations have continued to corroborate the grossly disproportionate racial patterns of drug enforcement, particularly focused on the criminalization of cannabis, which has most acutely impacted Black people across Canada.17 A Toronto Star investigation, based on access to information requests for ten years of Toronto Police Services arrest and charge data, found that, despite little difference in drug use across racial lines, “Black people with no history of criminal convictions have been three times more likely to be arrested by Toronto police for possession of small amounts of marijuana than white people with similar backgrounds.”18 Black people have also have been more likely to be detained pending bail and less likely to be released. The same investigation found that, between 2003 and 2013, 34% of the over 25,000 people arrested for cannabis possession in Toronto were Black, while Black people make up only 8% of the Toronto population. This arrest rate was related to the practice of carding — mass police stops primarily targeting Black and Indigenous communities. Even as Canada legalized cannabis in 2018, the government did not undertake any meaningful effort to redress Black people so disproportionately impacted by these laws and, given the increase in the legal penalties that do remain on the books, ongoing and disproportionate harm is likely to remain endemic.19

Beyond the criminalization of cannabis, Black peoples’ ongoing incarceration is related to the long-standing, always-racialized drug war. In 2014, 12% of federal prisoners incarcerated for drug-related reasons were Black, a massive representation given that Black people make up approximately 3% of the Canadian population.20

All of this suggests that the demand by Black communities to decriminalize drugs and to immediately expunge records are a vital necessity for minimizing the racially disproportionate harms of drug criminalization, part of a broader struggle to end the war on Black communities.

Of course, beyond being a crisis for Black communities, the criminalization of drugs is harmful and deadly for a broad cross-section of Canadian society. The harmfulness of drug prohibition has been increasingly recognized by international medical and human rights bodies, who have highlighted that prohibition––and not drug use––has contributed to multifarious harms commonly associated with drugs: human rights violations, elevated risk of lethal violence, the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C, and overdose deaths. In other words, the wide array of harms that many people associate with drugs in fact stem from their criminalization.21 In 2019, 1051 opioid-related deaths were recorded in Ontario, a number expected to have doubled in 2020.22 Yet it is well-known and long-forwarded by drug user advocates and, increasingly, drug policy experts and public health bodies, that these deaths are preventable.23 The so-called overdose crisis is, in fact, the result of drug criminalization, a poisoned drug supply, an inadequate supply/distribution of naloxone, and lack of a widely accessible safe supply.24

While the drug poisoning crisis impacts communities with a wide array of racial backgrounds, its effects on Black communities remain under-examined. While noting that race-based data is not collected for opioid overdose deaths, Zoë Dodd, long-time harm reduction advocate, states, “Despite the lack of data we know that overdose deaths among Black people is frequent. The overdose crisis is impacting Black lives. In the community I work in a number of Black men have died in recent months. These men were living in poverty, homeless and three of them died in Toronto city shelters.”25

As part of a broader move geared toward building police-free futures, the decriminalization of drugs is a vital necessity for protecting Black peoples’ and the broader public’s health, as well as for ending the endemic policing and incarceration of Black communities across Canada and North America.26

"The wide array of harms that many people associate with drugs in fact stem from their criminalization."

Beyond the Reckoning, Defund/Dismantle/Abolish: Ending the war on drugs, building abolitionist futures

Ending the war on drugs is crucial to making life liveable for Black communities in Canada. The time has come to dismantle the war on drugs and abolish a carceral, anti-Black approach to mind-altering substances. In the conclusion to Policing Black Lives, along with the necessity of decriminalizing drugs, sex work, and migration, I forward, “What would it look like to disinvest the incredible amount of public funds that are currently diverted toward police and prisons and invest, instead, in community-run, community-based institutions that serve people’s very real need for security, education and dignity?”27

The war on drugs has material consequences. In 2017, 90,625 drug arrests took place in Canada, with a significant, if underexplored, impact on the well-being of the individuals arrested, as well as their families and communities.28 The largely Black feminist scholars from the research team at conducted the astonishing and unprecedented undertaking of highlighting the municipal, provincial, and federal costs of policing, jails, and prisons in Canada.29 In addition to illuminating the billions of public funding dollars allocated to the surveillance, policing, and caging of Black, Indigenous, poor, racialized, drug-using, sex-working, and disabled community members, the research team highlighted that 2.3 billion tax dollars are spent on drug enforcement costs in Canada every year. The amount of funding currently allotted to arresting drug users and small-time dealers and incarcerating people who buy, use, or sell drugs could easily be redirected toward a massively expanded safe-supply program, safe beds for people experiencing intoxication, a dramatic expansion in harm reduction services, and non-coercive, consensual support options for drug users. It could be invested in meeting the material needs of Black families and all impoverished communities, rather than in policing them. The wholesale decriminalization of drugs, along with decriminalization of sex work, poverty-related offences and migration, stands to play an important role in ending the criminalization of Black communities. It is both possible and necessary to abolish the drug war, just as it is possible and necessary to invest, instead, in meaningful supports for people who have been the drug war’s primary targets.

The urgent need for decriminalization is being echoed, as well, by leading public health and social policy bodies. For example, in the United States, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) published a proposal entitled “Dismantling the federal drug war: A comprehensive drug decriminalization framework” in October 2020. DPA Executive Director Kasandra Frederique writes, “No drugs should be criminalized. It’s time to abolish the DEA [Drug Enforcement Agency].”30

Decriminalizing drugs, expunging records, and providing a safe supply would be lifesaving, and one means of redress for long-targeted Black, Indigenous, racialized, and poor communities, and people living with mental health issues or disabilities. But an end to the drug war is only one strand of the broader public reckoning over the harms endemic to policing and prisons that is taking place in Canadian society.

The wholesale criminalization of Black life in Canada extends well beyond the criminalization of drugs and, as such, decriminalization and safe supply are both integral to, but not a stand-in for, the broader struggle to build decarceral and abolitionist futures. Attitudes toward policing have changed dramatically across Canada, which is now seen by a significant segment of the population to be riddled with systemic racism. Importantly, nearly half of the Canadian population supports or somewhat supports the demand to #DefundThePolice.31 These shifts have occurred in the wake of some of Canada’s largest and most widely attended protests, which were Black-led but multi-racial.32 The labours of Black cis and trans women, trans men, and GNC community members during a spring and summer of unrest have borne fruit, making an understanding of policing as a form of harm possible for the broader public. As a result, Canadians have begun to envision—and support efforts to undertake—a divestment from policing and criminalization, and investment in community safety.33 Across Canada, organizers have forwarded a clear-eyed vision to minimize—with the goal of eradicating—the harmful impacts of policing in Canadian society. The vision being forwarded is one of a future without policing and is geared toward ending the long arc of state controls over Black and Indigenous people in particular.

Organizers across North America have shown that defunding the police extends beyond their budgets and includes uncoupling police from immigration enforcement, overdose response, schools, and a wide array of spaces where law enforcement does more harm than good.34 And they have further forwarded that defunding the police and rejecting a carceral response to economic, racial, and social inequality must be coupled with the demand to re-invest in community-run supports: long-term housing, 24-hour childcare, free public transit, non-police-based conflict resolution supports, and the return of the land to Indigenous peoples (Land Back). 

"Organizers across North America have shown that defunding the police extends beyond their budgets and includes uncoupling police from immigration enforcement, overdose response, schools, and a wide array of spaces where law enforcement does more harm than good"

The entire carceral apparatus of policing, jails, and prisons is increasingly being understood as antithetical to public health. In Canada, thousands of individuals and hundreds of labour, health, and human rights organizations have signed onto a historic declaration called “Choosing Real Safety: A Historic Declaration to Divest from Prisons and Policing and Build Safer Communities.”35 The American Public Health Association recently called for “the abolition of carceral systems and building in their stead just and equitable structures that advance the public’s health,” including the decarceration of prisoners, divestment from carceral systems, and investment in housing, employment, and other social determinants of health.36

From an abolitionist perspective increasingly understood as a vital public health imperative, the criminal justice reforms found in the Canadian federal government’s Bill C-22, which includes proposed amendments to the Criminal Code and the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, do not go far enough. Drug courts remain intact, along with the broader framework of carceral and coercive responses to an ongoing drug war. Further, they fail to provide redress or reparations to the countless Black families whose lives have been destroyed by the drug war, even as former police officers and politicians who presided over the rampant profiling of Black communities vis-à-vis drug laws now stand to make millions from the partial legalization of cannabis.37

If we believe that Black Lives Matter, ending drug criminalization matters. It is a major part of the broader reckoning about the role of policing, prisons, and criminal law enforcement in reproducing rampant racial inequalities in North American society. It is necessary to divest from, dismantle, and abolish the drug war––and all forms of policing and criminalization––and just as necessary to invest in building safe and healthy communities. For those who believe that ending the war on Black communities matters, abolition is the only option.

Author Bio

Robyn Maynard is the recipient of the SSHRC Talent Award, a Vanier scholar, and PhD candidate at the University of Toronto. She is the award-winning, bestselling author of Policing Black Lives: State violence in Canada from slavery to the present. This peer-reviewed book is the first of its kind to consider slavery’s afterlife in the enduring surveillance, policing, and incarceration of Black communities in present-day Canada and to make the case for building abolitionist futures. Maynard has written extensively about policing, prisons, borders, and abolition in peer-reviewed and trade publications, including her most recent toolkit, Building the World We Want: A Roadmap to Police Free Futures in Canada, designed by Sahra Soudi. With Pascale Diverlus, she co-hosts the abolitionist learning hub “Building the World We Want.” Her writing can be found at

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1. Robyn Maynard and Sahra Soudi (design), Building the World We Want: A Roadmap to Police Free Futures in Canada, 2021,

2. For a list of demands from organizations across Canada, see Maynard, Building the World We Want.

3. Safe supply has been forwarded by drug users, and increasingly recognized by public health bodies, as a means to limit the fatalities of the “drug poisoning” crisis. See Mark Tyndall, “A Safer Drug Supply: A pragmatic and ethical response to the overdose crisis,” CMAJ 192, no. 34 (2020): E986-E987, Pilot projects have begun in Ontario and British Columbia, but drug user advocates highlight that their scale must be dramatically increased and paired with the decriminalization of drugs to more substantively protect drug users’ lives. See “Advocates Share Fear of Worsening Overdose Crisis in 2021, Want National Safe Supply,” The Canadian Press, December 17, 2020,

4. “Policy Platform: End the War on Black People,”,

5. “End the War on Drugs” in “Policy Platform,”,

6. Emily Ferguson Murphy, The Black Candle (Toronto: Thomas Allen, 1922).

7. Robyn Maynard, Policing Black Lives: State violence in Canada from slavery to the present (Fernwood, 2017), 92. See also Todd Gordon, “Neoliberalism, Racism, and the War on Drugs in Canada,” in Social Justice 33, no. 1 (103) (2006): 59–78; Howard Palmer, Patterns of Prejudice: A history of nativism in Alberta (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1982); and Akwatu Khenti, “The Canadian War on Drugs: Structural violence and unequal treatment of Black Canadians,” The International Journal on Drug Policy 25, no. 2 (2014): 190–95.

8.Maynard, Policing Black Lives, 98.

9. See Maynard, “Canada’s ‘War on Drugs’” in Policing Black Lives, 92–102, 144–51, 200–4.

10. David M. Tanovich, The Colour of Justice: Policing race in Canada (Toronto: Irwin Law, 2006). See also Sonia N. Lawrence and Toni Williams, “Swallowed Up: Drug couriers at the borders of Canadian sentencing,” University of Toronto Law Journal 56, no. 4 (2006): 285–332.

11. See Maynard, Policing Black Lives, 173–75, 178–79.

12. See Andrea Ritchie, Invisible No More: Policing violence against Black women and women of color (Boston: Beacon Press, 2017) and Lawrence and Williams, “Swallowed Up.”

13. See Maynard, “‘The mules of the world’: Profiling Black women as drug mules” in Policing Black Lives, 144–151. See also Julia Sudbury, “‘Mules,’ ‘Yardies,’ and Other Folk Devils: Mapping Cross-Border Imprisonment in Britain,” in Global Lockdown: Race, Gender, and the Prison-Industrial Complex, ed. Julia Sudbury (New York: Routledge, 2004) and Lawrence and Williams, “Swallowed Up.”

14. Maynard, Policing Black Lives, 200–4. See also Susan Boyd, “Gendered Drug Policy: Motherisk and the regulation of mothering in Canada,” International Journal of Drug Policy 68 (2019): 109–16,

15. Susan Boyd, Mothers and Illicit Drugs: Transcending the myths (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999).

16. Maynard, Policing Black Lives, 98.

17. Akwasi Owusu-Bempah and Alex Luscombe, “Race, Cannabis and the Canadian War on Drugs: An examination of cannabis arrest data by race in five cities,” International Journal of Drug Policy (2020): 1,

18. Jim Rankin and Sandro Contenta, “Toronto Marijuana Arrests Reveal ‘Startling’ Racial Divide,” Toronto Star, July 6, 2017,

19. Owusu-Bempah and Luscombe, “Race, Cannabis and the Canadian War on Drugs,” 1.

20. Evan Solomon, “A Bad Trip: Legalizing pot is about race,” Maclean’s, April 4, 2017,

21. Joanne Csete et. al., “Public Health and International Drug Policy,” The Lancet 387, no. 10026 (2016): 1427–80. See also Global Commission on Drug Policy, Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy (2011),

22. Ontario Drug Policy Research Network (ODPRN), Office of the Chief Coroner/Ontario Forensic Pathology Service, Public Health Ontario, and the Centre on Drug Policy Evaluation, Preliminary patterns in circumstances surrounding opioid-related deaths in Ontario during the COVID-19 pandemic (Toronto: ODPRN, November 2020),

23. Gillian Kolla et al., “Canada's Overdose Crisis: Authorities Are Not Acting Fast Enough,” The Lancet Public Health 4, no. 4 (E180) (April 2019),

24. Ibid. See also Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, Opioid Overdose Prevention and Response in Canada: Policy Brief Series, (Vancouver: Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, 2013),

25. Zoë Dodd, e-mail message to author, March 15, 2021. Dodd goes on to cite a recently published report by the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network (ODPRN): “An emerging trend during the pandemic is greater opioid-related deaths in neighbourhoods with higher Ethno-Cultural Diversity … Before and during the pandemic, opioid-related deaths occurred more often in neighbourhoods with the highest material deprivation.” See Tara Gomes, ODPRN, “Preliminary Patterns in Circumstances Surrounding Opioid-related Deaths in Ontario during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Dodd goes on to say, “There are issues with the collection of race-based data amongst people who have died of overdose. Race-based data is limited, this is due primarily to structural racism and what little I have seen from the province has shown it was disproportionately higher among Black and Indigenous people and continuing to climb. The Ontario Chief Coroner’s office reported in July 2020 in a presentation, ‘2019 Opioid Mortality in Ontario and Preliminary 2020 Trends,’ that ‘although Black and Indigenous decedents made up a small proportion of accidental opioid-related deaths compared to White decedents in 2019, the rate of these deaths per 100,000 population among males was almost as high as it was for White decedents … Deceased individuals who were Indigenous and Black made up a slightly higher proportion of accidental opioid- related deaths in 2019 compared to 2018.’” See Office of the Chief Coroner for Ontario, “2019 Opioid Mortality in Ontario and Preliminary 2020 Trends,” (presentation, Ontario Harm Reduction Network Quarterly Meeting, July 2020).

26. I articulate the necessity for drug decriminalization in Canada as a step toward addressing endemic and structural anti-Black state violence and, in particular, the heightened policing and incarceration of Black communities in Canada. See Maynard, “Canada’s ‘War on Drugs’: Drug Prohibition, Black Incarceration” in Policing Black Lives, 92–101.

27. Maynard, Policing Black Lives, 231.

28. Susan Boyd, Drug Arrests in Canada, 2017, (Vancouver: Author, 2018),


30. Kassandra Frederique, “No drugs should be criminalized. It’s time to abolish the DEA,” International Drug Policy Consortium, October 28, 2020,

31. Saif Kaisar and Nikitha Martins, “Study: Canadians agree RCMP suffers from systemic racism but split on if police force can fix itself,” NEWS 1130, July 11, 2020,

32. This shift, it is important to note, has also occurred because of intellectual and political labour by Black feminist organizers and scholar-activists, including Beverly Bain, Sandy Hudson, Gachi Issa, Sarah Jama, El Jones, Marlihan Lopez, Sahra Soudi, Ravyn Wyngs, and many others, who have spent countless hours producing resources, doing media interviews, giving workshops and webinars, and working tirelessly to educate Canadians over the last seven months about the meaning of #DefundThePolice and the possibilities of abolition.

33. See Sandy Hudson, “Defunding The Police Will Save Black And Indigenous Lives In Canada,” Huffington Post, June 2, 2020; El Jones, “Canada Protests for George Floyd and Regis Korchinski-Paquet: Black Canadians face a racist system, too,” Washington Post, June 4, 2020; Sandy Hudson, “Policy Options for Defunding the Police & Creating Alternative Services of Safety and Support,” Broadbent Institute, June 9, 2020; “El Jones defining ‘defunding the police,’” Information Morning - NS, September 25, 2020; “CBC Asks Sarah Jama about Defunding Police, Protesting at the Mayor's Home and more,” CBC News, December 2, 2020. See also “Not Another Black Life,” Instagram, See also No Pride in Policing (see Blake Eligh, “Police Check: UTM lecturer Beverly Bain on cops and the Pride Parade,” University of Toronto Mississauga News, May 11, 2018).

34. For the US, see Woods Ervin, Mariame Kaba, and Andrea Ritchie, Interrupting Criminalization: Research in Action, BCRW Social Justice Institute, for Canada. For Canada, see Maynard, Building the World We Want.

35. Co-authored by Indigenous and Black prison abolitionists, prisoner support organizations across Canada, and me, the declaration also forwards an investment of these funds into community-based anti-violence programs in Black and other marginalized communities, mental health supports, and Indigenous land restitution, among many other possibilities. See

36. American Public Health Association, “Advancing Public Health Interventions to Address the Harms of the Carceral System,” Policy No. LB20-05, October 24, 2020,

37. Enzo DiMatteo, "The Ex Cops, Politicians and Friends of Bill Blair Cashing In On Legal Weed: A not-so-short list of who's making a killing on legalization," NOW, January 29, 2018,