Toronto Board of Health votes to decriminalize possession of small amounts of illegal drugs

December 7, 2021
Toronto Board of Health votes to decriminalize possession of small amounts of illegal drugs
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The Toronto Board of Health has voted to ask the federal government to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of illegal drugs in the city to help tackle the worsening opioid overdose crisis. 

During a Zoom presentation Monday to the board, Dr. Eileen de Villa, the city’s chief medical officer, said decriminalizing drug use is crucial to help people who are struggling with addiction. 

“Decriminalization will reduce the harms associated with drug use and … help to remove barriers that people who use drugs tell us they experience when accessing health and human services,” she said.

Toronto saw 531 opioid overdose deaths last year, which is an 81-per-cent increase over 2019. De Villa said decriminalization would help save lives by addressing the “stigma” and the “discrimination” that keeps people from seeking help. Municipalities cannot unilaterally decriminalize drug use as it’s the sole responsibility of the federal government, but Monday’s vote authorizes de Villa to seek an exemption for the City of Toronto from Health Canada .

De Villa, who recommended decriminalization to the city last week, told the board some groups are more prone to being targeted by the criminal justice system than others. 

“Criminalizing drug possession has disproportionate effects on Indigenous and Black populations who are more often over-criminalized for the prosecution of simple drug offences,” she said. 

“Criminalization of drugs has not been effective in reducing either the supply or the demand for drugs. And moreover, the unregulated drug supply is becoming more toxic and unpredictable, causing overdoses and other harms.”

De Villa said the goal is not legalizing illicit drugs, but ensuring people who possess small amounts of illegal substances are not under threat of being arrested and criminally charged, which increases the likelihood they’ll use street drugs alone and in unsupervised settings, raising the risk of overdoses.

She said the coming of the novel coronavirus only worsened the situation.  

“There was already a serious drug poisoning crisis in Toronto before the COVID 19 pandemic, and this crisis frankly has only been worsened and exacerbated by the COVID 19 pandemic.”

Health Canada responds

In a statement to CBC Toronto, the office of the Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Carolyn Bennett said it recognizes “the different approaches cities, provinces, and other organizations are taking” and it is “supportive of their work to find innovative solutions” when it comes to saving lives and reducing harm. 

Bennett’s office says it is reviewing “requests for an exemption from federal drug laws to decriminalize personal possession of controlled substances from the City of Vancouver and the Province of British Columbia.” Her office notes it will review any request for exemption it receives. 

During Monday’s board meeting, many members of the public and advocacy organizations came forward to push for decriminalization, including Alejandro Gonzalez Rendon with ACORN, a group that advocates for low income people.

As someone who lives in a Toronto Community Housing building, he sees how the policing of people who use drugs “has resulted in mass displacement from these communities, adding more trauma as a result of  dislocation and family separation,” he said.

“To decriminalize simple possession of drugs is only one step in the right direction,” he said. “It’s also equally important to address the social determinants of mental health.”

Dr. Leslie Buckley of Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health says decriminalization would take drug use out of the legal system and make it a health issue, thereby helping people struggling with addiction get the help they need. (CAMH)

Angie Hamilton with Families for Addiction Recovery said decriminalizing drug possession needs to go further than just a “city-by-city, municipality-by-municipality or even province-by-province basis.”

“Our criminal laws fall under federal jurisdiction. When someone is convicted of committing a crime, they’re labelled as criminals. The same activity shouldn’t be criminal or not criminal depending on where you live in Canada,” she said.

In an interview with CBC News, Dr. Leslie Buckley, chief of the addictions division at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, said the centre has long called for drug use to be a public health issue, not a concern for the legal system. She said by reducing the stigma, people who use drugs are more likely to seek treatment early. 

“Criminalization of substances has not been effective and it creates social harms,” she said.

“We’re shifting more to a health lens and getting people the care that they need.”

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