Toronto to ask the Feds to decriminalize the possession of illegal drugs for personal use

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Toronto is preparing to ask the federal government to decriminalize the possession of illegal drugs for personal use in the city, saying the move is necessary as drug-related deaths reach record highs.

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A public hearing on the case was concluded this week, and the city’s top doctor said Toronto expects to send its request to Health Canada later this fall.

“In Toronto, deaths involving all drugs, including opioids, have risen to record highs,” said Dr. Eileen de Villa in a statement. “The situation is still urgent and more action is needed to respond.”

Toronto Public Health said a total of 521 confirmed deaths were recorded from opioid overdoses in the city last year. It represented a 78 percent increase from deaths recorded in 2019, it said.

City data also indicates that paramedics in the first three months of this year responded to 1,173 suspected opioid overdose calls, including 93 involving one death. That compared to 46 deaths calls in the first three months of 2020.

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The request for decriminalization, Toronto is preparing – which will ask Health Canada for an exemption under the Controlled Substances and Personal Drugs Act in the city – would follow a similar one that Vancouver made in May.

Leigh Chapman, a registered nurse and co-organizer of the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society, called Toronto’s planned federal request “a step in the right direction.”

She lost her 43-year-old brother, Brad, to an opioid overdose in August 2015 — a few weeks after he was released from prison. His death led to an investigation that yielded a series of recommendations that provided a series of recommendations to better protect vulnerable people living with addiction.

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One of the recommendations was that the federal government should consider decriminalizing the possession of all drugs for personal use and increase prevention, harm reduction and treatment services.

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Chapman said those measures could have saved her brother.

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

A 2016 study published in the journal PLOS ONE showed that between 2006 and 2013 in Ontario, one in ten deaths among adult toxins occurred within a year of release from provincial prison.

“I think we need to reduce the damage from criminalization in order to better meet people’s needs, meet them where they are, and see how we can help them stay alive,” Chapman said.

Coun. Joe Cressy, chairman of the Toronto Board of Health, said city staff “are currently consulting on the details of what an exception would look like” when it comes to decriminalizing personalized medicine in Canada’s most populous city.

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

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Decriminalization is a key element in a series of measures needed to tackle the overdose crisis, along with treatments, increased harm reduction services and a more secure supply, Cressy said.

“It’s a critical piece, and I think the chorus of experts, from law enforcement to health care that calls for such action nationally, is only growing because people continue to die from preventable deaths,” he said.

The Toronto Center for Addiction and Mental Health has recently issued a statement on the issue, saying it has been inefficient and counterproductive to make criminals out of drug users.

Cressy added that while Toronto’s request to the federal government would be specific to the city, national decriminalization was something the local health department has been calling for every year since 2018.

“A nationwide framework, something that CAMH has called for, that the Toronto Department of Health has long called for, could and should be done right away,” he said.

Health Canada did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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