Toronto seeks to decriminalize possession of illicit drugs for personal use

In recent months, Toronto has been preparing to request the federal government to decriminalize the possession of illicit drugs for personal use in the city in order to reduce the incidence of drug-related deaths.

Following a public consultation on this subject, which took place earlier this fall, the city’s request is projected to be submitted to Health Canada in the upcoming months.

“In Toronto, deaths involving all substances, including opioids, have increased to record highs,” said Dr. Eileen de Villa, Medical Officer of Health for the City of Toronto, in a statement. “The situation remains urgent and more action is needed to respond.”

According to Toronto Public Health, as of October 2021, there were a total of 521 confirmed opioid overdose deaths recorded in the city over the last year. Notably, these statistics demonstrate a 78% increase in drug-related deaths since 2019.

Further data shows that in the first three months of 2021, paramedics responded to 1,173 suspected opioid overdose calls, which included 93 calls that involved a death. In contrast, there were 46 calls involving death that paramedics responded to in the first three months of 2020.

The decriminalization request by Toronto will ask Health Canada for an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act for personal drug use in the city. This request by Toronto follows in the footsteps of other Canadian cities, such as Vancouver in May 2021, making similar requests.

“I think we need to reduce the harms from criminalization to be able to better meet people’s needs, meet them where they’re at and see how we can help them stay alive,” said Leigh Chapman, a registered nurse and co-organizer with the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society.

Chapman had lost her brother to an opioid overdose in August 2015, shortly after he was released from jail. A coroner’s inquest was carried out following his death, resulting in a series of recommendations to better safeguard vulnerable people living with addictions.

One of the recommendations from the inquest was for the federal government to decriminalize the possession of all drugs for personal use and increase prevention, harm reduction, and treatment services.

In her interview with CTV News, Chapman said such measures could have saved her brother.

“Brad’s whole life would have been different if he hadn’t had … literally a cycle of incarceration for probably over 20 years on and off,” she said.

Coun. Joe Cressy, chair of the Toronto Board of Health, said Toronto city staff are “currently consulting on the details of what an exemption would look like” for decriminalizing drugs for personal use in Canada’s most populous city.

“We are dealing with a public health crisis,” said Cressy. “And the way to address it is with a health response.”

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