Toronto should decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs in response to the worsening opioid overdose crisis, a new report from the city’s medical officer of health recommends.
The report, signed by Dr Eileen de Villa, was released to the public on Monday and will be presented to the Toronto Board of Health at its next meeting on December 6.
If approved by council, he would order de Villa to formally ask the federal government to exempt people within Toronto’s geographic boundaries from criminal charges for possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use. Drug trafficking, including production and sale, would remain illegal.
Toronto would become the second major Canadian city, after Vancouver, to apply to Health Canada for such an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which regulates the possession, distribution and sale of unregulated drugs in Canada.
“The status quo approach to the drug poisoning crisis is not working,” the report reads.
“There is an urgent need for a comprehensive public health approach to drug policy that removes structural barriers to health care and social services, provides alternatives to the supply of toxic drugs, and improves and expands services. to improve the health and well-being of Toronto communities. “
A global approach “
De Villa’s recommendation is one of many that seek to broaden the city’s approach to the toxic drug crisis and would continue the trend of treating drug use as a public health issue rather than a health issue. criminal justice.
Her report also recommends that the city push upper levels of government to secure additional funding so it can expand safe supply programs, harm reduction services, and treatment initiatives. And it requires more resources for overdose awareness beyond homeless shelters to parks and drop-ins, and mobile drug use services outside of downtown.
“It is important to note that decriminalization alone will not solve the drug poisoning crisis,” the report read. “Seeking an exemption from criminal penalties for personal possession is only part of a comprehensive approach.”
Report says decriminalization can help people who use drugs connect to harm reduction and treatment services, as well as other social services such as housing, without fear of criminal charges or discrimination. .
He also cites evidence showing that the criminalization of drug possession has a disproportionate impact on blacks and Indigenous people, those with mental health issues and those recently incarcerated.
Jason Stateman, a 25-year drug user, told CBC News it’s time for drug use to be treated as a medical problem, rather than a criminal act.
“People who do it don’t do it because they like it. In fact, they do it because they have to and they are sick,” he said.
Under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, the federal Minister of Health can grant municipalities and provinces an exemption from provisions that criminalize drugs if they are for medical purposes or if they are considered to be in the public interest.
Supervised consumption sites, where drug users consume drugs under the supervision of trained health workers, legally operate under similar exemptions.
Jeanette Bowles, postdoctoral fellow at St. Michael’s Hospital of the Center on Drug Policy Evaluation, said decriminalization would help reduce the stigma associated with drug use.
“Stigma can lead to shame. Shame can lead people to use drugs only. Drug use alone is a very high risk factor for overdose death because there is no one to intervene,” he said. Bowles said.
Police, solidarity mayor
Toronto Police Service Chief James Ramer expressed support for the recommendation in a letter released alongside the report.
“We agree that the current approach to drug use management does not support safe communities or advance the health of people who use drugs,” Ramer’s letter read.
“Decriminalizing simple possession of all drugs, combined with scaling up prevention, harm reduction and treatment services, is a more effective way to address the associated public health and safety harms. substance use.
In a statement, Mayor John Tory said he was open to considering the alternative approach proposed by de Villa, “but only if it is preceded by a robust system of health care support in addiction and referral pathways to effectively deal with the whole problem, which are not currently in place or have too many barriers to access. ”
The national association representing the chiefs of police and mayors of major Ontario cities is among those who have pushed for decriminalization in recent years.
Drug crisis worsens during pandemic
Toronto’s opioid overdose crisis worsened dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to data from Toronto Public Health, 531 people died from opioid-related causes in 2020, an 81% increase from 2019.
Meanwhile, in the twelve months from November 1, 2020 to October 31, 2021, paramedics responded to 5,776 suspected overdoses, including 351 calls resulting in death. This is a 61 percent increase in overdose calls and a 53 percent increase in calls involving death from the previous 12 months.
Medical experts say the recent surge in overdoses has been largely caused by a range of toxic substances found in the street drug supply. The city’s drug control department reported finding unexpected and very potent drugs in samples.
These include opioids like carfentanil, etonitazene, isotonitazene, and etizolam. These substances, which are mixed with more common opioids like fentanyl, can contribute to higher incidents of overdose.