According to the recommendations published in a report released by Toronto Public Health in the beginning of June, Toronto should form a working group that includes police and individuals with the relevant experience to develop a proposal for the federal government to decriminalize drug possession.
The report was created as part of the city’s drug overdose update to address the ongoing “drug poisoning crisis” affecting Toronto and other cities across Canada, including Vancouver, Montreal and Kingston, which were the first cities to make the same request to the federal government.
Although the city’s board of health and its medical health officer, Dr. Eileen de Villa, have previously urged the federal government to decriminalize drug possession nationally, the new recommendation includes requesting an exemption under federal law, the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, specifically for the city of Toronto.
“The situation remains urgent and too many people are still dying. It [the criminalization of drugs] forces people into unsafe drug use practices and creates barriers to seeking help”
– Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s Medical Health Officer
Furthermore, the report recommends targeting efforts to reduce stigma around individual drug use, as well as providing access to services and removing the burden of a criminal record. Taken together, these measures could help reduce the increasing numbers of overdose deaths.
“The dual public health crises of drug poisonings and COVID-19 are having significant and increasingly dire impacts on people who use drugs, their families and communities,” the report says.
The report also urges Premier Doug Ford’s provincial government to eliminate the limit that the Ontario PCs placed on the number of supervised drug consumption sites that can legally open, and to expand these services.
There are currently 21 supervised consumption sites across Ontario, which have been demonstrated to be life-saving alternatives for individuals at risk of overdose and infection.
So far, the federal government has been moving towards illicit drug decriminalization, including rolling out a program to provide a safe supply of drugs to a network of Toronto health partners for use with existing clients. However, it has not endorsed allowing simple possession of banned substances.
Numerous Toronto public health officials, including Coun. Joe Cressy, Chair of the Board of Health, have pushed for implementation of safe supply, supervised drug sites and decriminalization over the last five years, with the city’s first permanent site opening in 2017. Prior to that, front-line volunteers erected ad hoc, illegal sites across the city, using tents and trailers in parks to help keep people alive.
“The overdose epidemic is a public health crisis and it requires a public health response, one grounded in treatment prevention and harm reduction,” said Cressy. “A public health response can and will be successful when all levels of government take the necessary steps to implement it.”
In recent years, Toronto deaths involving drugs have increased to “record highs” — with a 78% increase in confirmed overdoses in 2020 compared to 2019, and a total of 521 deaths confirmed and 10 suspected deaths recorded by the Office of the Chief Coroner in 2020.