Benji Hayward placed two LSD blotters on his tongue as he and a friend took their seats at the Pink Floyd concert in Toronto on a Friday night in May of 1988. Hayward, then 14 years old, had tried the psychedelic two or three times before, telling friends it made him feel awake and completely aware of everything around him.
But as the night wore on, he got really hyper and had trouble sitting up straight. He also smoked a joint, which didn’t help. Eventually Hayward got separated from his friends and lost in the crowds as the concert ended, wearing the blue and white jacket of the North York high school where he was a freshman. It’s the last time any of them knew where he was, until the Toronto Metro police marine unit found his lifeless body four days later in Lake Ontario.
“We have a hell of a serious drug problem … it’s frightening.”
An autopsy determined Hayward had accidentally drowned due to the ingestion of LSD and cannabis. The coroner launched an inquest, and the jury’s final report three months later declared: “drugs and drug abuse are the curse of this century” and, further: “governments at all levels should declare war on drugs and send a message loud and clear: ‘SAY NO TO DRUGS.’”
That inquest and the outcry around Hayward’s tragic death prompted exactly that and also gave rise to the country’s first anti-drug secretariat, who took a combative approach to the problem. There was very little, if any, talk of harm reduction strategies. And little attention to enhancing addictions and mental health treatments. The focus was mostly on abstinence and wiping out drug dealers. While discussion today has largely moved towards treating addiction as a medical condition and less as a crime, this moment decades ago helped shape policies and attitudes toward drug use that still remain as the country grapples with an opioid overdose crisis that has claimed thousands of lives.
Over the course of the summer, to mark Canada’s 150th birthday, VICE News will be digging into some of the forgotten sagas from the past century-and-a-half.
Days after Hayward’s body was found, there were already demands for action against any activities that could lead to any similar incident. Ontario’s Solicitor-General Joan Smith toyed with the idea of banning kids under 16 from rock concerts. Police officers arrested seven people for drug-related offences at an Iron Maiden concert the following weekend at Exhibition Stadium, the same venue where Pink Floyd played.
“We have a hell of a serious drug problem … it’s frightening,” a staff inspector with the Toronto police morality squad told reporters at the time.
The force doubled down on drug seizures and arrests across the city. And that June, North York Mayor Mel Lastman — a loud-mouthed millionaire known for instigating media frenzies — said he was fed up by drug use among young people and called for cops to “rid the streets of this evil.” Lastman and the city council told the Metro Police Chief Jack Marks to report back on the extent of the drug problem in the city and how much more money he would require to wage an effective “war on drugs.”
Marks told the Council that marijuana seizures were up by more than 80 percent from the year prior, and LSD seizures were up nearly 70 percent. Heroin and cocaine busts were up 50 percent. The police commission went on to ask for 97 new drug officers and millions more in funding.
Throughout the summer, community leaders and politicians continued to drum up support for tough-on-drugs approaches. One North York city councillor, Judy Sgro, who now sits as a Liberal Member of Parliament for Humber River, got thousands of signatures on a petition calling for the confiscation of all property and possessions acquired through drug-related crimes, and boosting the presence of police officers to fight drug use.
“We’re sensing a growing movement of young people willing to stand up and say ‘I don’t need drugs.’”
In August, 12 people from the ages of 16 to 26 were arrested on drug charges at an INXS and Ziggy Marley concert, again on the Exhibition grounds.
That same month is when the jury in Hayward’s coroner’s inquest released its 15-page report, which included a slew of recommendations urging then-premier David Peterson to establish a task force on substance abuse, bolster funding for police drug squads and courts, impose life imprisonment for those who sell drugs to youth, and teach young kids in school about drug education, even if it meant taking time away from academic subjects.
On top of that, concert promoters should advertise “drug-free environments.”
Premier Peterson heeded the recommendations by tapping MPP Ken Black, a former high school teacher and coach, to lead a one-man task force to get to the bottom of drug use in the province and find ways to tackle it. By the end of a five-week tour Black spent talking to drug users and anti-drug warriors, he told the government the drug problem is “more serious than ever.”
“I don’t want to overdramatize it — Toronto is not Los Angeles or New York. But it’s hitting age groups and segments of society which it had been unknown to before,” he explained. “We’re sensing a growing movement of young people willing to stand up and say ‘I don’t need drugs.’”
And to help promote this, Black encouraged the government to begin teaching kids about drugs in kindergarten – introducing it in middle school wasn’t good enough, he said. He also called for greater treatment options for those with addictions.
Described as “World War Three, the war against drugs.”
In the meantime, the federal government dropped $400,000 on a drug education video for kids in grade six and higher. It also adopted a new law, Bill C-61, that authorized police to seize and freeze the assets of alleged drug criminals before getting convicted. This tool, said federal solicitor-general James Kelleher, would allow cops to “cut the heart out of drug trafficking.”
The following summer, more than 350 people gathered at a synagogue in North York to mark the one-year anniversary of Hayward’s death. Many high-profile speakers, including Police Chief Marks and then-federal health minister Perrin Beatty spoke about what they had learned in that time, described as “World War Three, the war against drugs.”
And the fight was only just beginning, Beatty told the crowd. “All of the money we spend will be useless unless we can change the way people think,” he said.
Black, the premier’s special drug advisor, would go on to lead the province’s anti-drug secretariat, which would get quietly folded into the provincial Ministry of Health by 1992. Hayward has barely been mentioned since, but the scourge of drug overdoses has worsened in the city in recent years, resulting in radical new approaches Black likely never dreamed of, including safe injection sites and prescription heroin.
“There is no silver bullet to fixing this epidemic,” current Toronto mayor John Tory wrote in a recent Toronto Sun op-ed. “There are things we can do faster that may help lessen this crisis.”
(This story has been updated to reflect that the INXS concert was with Ziggy Marley, not Bob Marley)