Toronto awaits drug decriminalization

While Toronto waits to hear whether the federal government will grant its request to decriminalize possession of illegal drugs for personal use, harm reduction advocates say approval is urgently needed as governments fail to match the severity of the opioid crisis.

This week marks seven months since the city sent its decriminalization request to Ottawa, the same amount of time it took the federal government to approve a similar request from British Columbia.

Health Canada says the application is under investigation, noting that such requests “will be carefully and thoroughly assessed on a case-by-case basis”.

But according to harm reduction experts, an increase in opioid deaths has highlighted the need for action.

“I see no urgency. I see complacency,” said Dan Werb, director of the Center on Drug Policy Evaluation in Toronto, which was contracted by the city to assist with the decriminalization request.

“We’ve been in this epidemic of overdose driven by potent opioids for seven years. We’ve got all the data we need right now. And we’re looking at a government slowing down the response, and also responding in ways that aren’t actually involved.” be with the thing that kills people.”

Toronto — which asked Health Canada for an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act for personal drug use in the city — has seen a spike in overdose deaths during the pandemic. More than 1,000 people died in the city from drug overdoses in 2020 and 2021, almost double the number of reported deaths in the previous two years.

The city and proponents agree that decriminalization alone is not enough to tackle the opioid crisis.

Toronto, in its filing, has established a decriminalization model that provides for expanded access to social support, including housing, as well as expanded safer delivery programs to provide pharmaceutical-grade opioid alternatives to street supply.

But Werb said the portion of the application remains “ambitious” without proper funding from the provincial and federal governments.

Toronto Public Health said it has been in ongoing discussions with Health Canada since filing the application on Jan. 4.

If granted, the exemption would decriminalize drug possession for personal use in Toronto. But which drugs and how much are still open questions, with lawyers calling on the federal government to prevent what they call missteps made with British Columbia’s exemption.

Ottawa came in for a lot of criticism from harm reduction advocates after it set the personal property threshold at 2.5 grams under BC’s exemption, nearly half what the county had requested. The federal government said the decision was made based on police input.

Proponents say a low threshold could leave those with the highest opioid dependence with an ongoing threat of criminalization.

“It strikes me as an irrational fear, a kind of fear that, again, seems to be motivated by law enforcement concerns,” Werb said.

Toronto’s request avoids asking for a specific threshold.

A summary of the city’s consultation with those who use drugs noted that a common threshold could overlook various tolerances and buying practices, such as people sharing drugs or buying in larger quantities to get discounts.

And while BC’s Exemption includes a list of exempt drugs, Toronto is calling for all drugs to be decriminalized.

That’s an important distinction, public health researcher Gillian Kolla said, especially given the volatility of opioid street supply.

She notes that opioids can be cut with drugs not on the BC list, leaving open the possibility that a person could be arrested if a drug sample comes back positive for a non-exempt substance.

“Relying primarily on this enforcement-based approach that we know has not worked for people, which we know as a society has not worked to address the harms of drug use, remains a problem in how we approach decriminalization, said Kolla, a Toronto-based research associate at the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria.

Toronto police said they were unable to discuss the details of the waiver application. A spokesman said police support a “made-in-Toronto alternative to criminalization.”

Toronto Public Health said that if a waiver is granted, it “expects significant turnaround time for implementation planning similar to what was envisioned for BC.” The BC waiver will come into effect at the end of January, eight months after it was granted.

Vancouver filed its own decriminalization request five months before BC made the provincial request. Health Canada said that after the BC waiver was granted, Vancouver wrote to the agency asking it to suspend consideration of the city’s proposal.

One notable difference between the BC and Toronto applications is the “painful silence” from the Ontario government, said Angela Robertson, executive director of Parkdale Queen West Community Health Center, one of nine federally funded sites offering a safer supply program in Ontario.

“It’s a shame we don’t have a provincial exemption on the table. But right now, given the crisis, we’re taking what we can get and continuing to push for more,” Robertson said.

In response to questions about its stance on Toronto’s decriminalization filing, the Ontario Ministry of Health has highlighted some of its harm reduction programs and recent investments in addiction treatment.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on August 5, 2022.

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