Toronto’s top doctor sets record straight on drug decriminalization request

Jurisdictions considering drug decriminalization are rethinking their plans after B.C.’s decision to scale back its landmark pilot. But Caryn Ceolin with why Toronto’s top doctor says decriminalization is still the way to go to save lives.

Toronto finds itself in the centre of a heated debate around drug decriminalization just as British Columbia is asking Ottawa to modify their federally granted pilot project.

B.C. is one year into a three-year pilot project to decriminalize possession of small amounts of certain illegal drugs, including heroin, fentanyl, cocaine and methamphetamine. A Health Canada exemption was issued to allow the pilot to proceed.

Last week, B.C. Premier David Eby asked Health Canada to recriminalize the use of those drugs in public spaces, such as hospitals and parks. Possession in private spaces would still be decriminalized.

On Wednesday, Toronto’s top doctor stressed decriminalization is not legalization and the goal is to treat addiction as a health issue, not a criminal one.

“Let me be very clear around public drug use… it is not what is contemplated in our decriminalization application and it’s not acceptable,” Dr. Eileen de Villa told CityNews. “[The decriminalization application] is not about public drug use, it doesn’t make that legal, it doesn’t make the selling or trafficking of drugs legal.”

In a submission to Health Canada last year, de Villa, the city’s manager and police chief proposed a plan that would decriminalize “all controlled drugs and substances for personal use… for all people in Toronto, including youth.”

Dr. Kieran Moore, the province’s chief medical officer of health, also recommended in his annual report in March that Ontario decriminalize simple possession of unregulated drugs for personal use and make safer supply accessible to reduce the number of people in the province dying from preventable opioid overdoses each year.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has asked the federal government to immediately recriminalize drugs in public spaces in B.C. and in a letter posted to X on Wednesday he asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to reject Toronto’s long-standing request to extend the decriminalization pilot.

“If you allow Toronto to legalize hard drugs, as you did with British Columbia, the only outcome will be leaving the most vulnerable Canadians to a life of misery and despair,” Poilievre said in the letter.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford also called on the city to drop its application, calling it a “nightmare.”

“I will fight this tooth and nail,” said Ford. “Letting people do cocaine and crack and heroine – you’ve got to be kidding me… Give them treatment, support them. That’s what we need, not say, ‘Here’s some more drugs to take.’ Sometimes I wonder where people’s brains are. I really do. It’s unbelievable.”

Toronto is requesting decriminalization apply to all areas of the city, expect child-care facilities, elementary and high schools, and airports. When asked how the city then prevents public drug use, de Villa pointed to supervised consumption site.

“We really need to ensure that people who do and will use drugs, because people inevitably will use, do it in the safest way possible,” said Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto.

Owusu-Bempah said curbing open drug use is difficult to do, especially given the housing crisis, but added there are lessons to be learned from prohibition.

“There were, as there is now with our drug supplier, a tainted drug supply, many people experienced alcohol poisoning and died. We now have safe consumption sites for alcohol. Those are bars,” he told CityNews. “Having safe and supervised sites for individuals to use drugs is the most appropriate way forward. And that is exactly what Toronto should be looking at.”

Health Canada said it is still reviewing Toronto’s application for an exemption to the federal drug law.

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