Toronto public health officials call on feds to decriminalize drugs

Desiree Burns
July 10, 2018

In recommendations expected to be considered by Toronto's board of health next week, the city's top public health official, Dr Eileen de Villa, called on the federal government to do away with legal penalties for the possession of all drugs for personal use.

"Our belief, based on the evidence, is that the criminalization of people who take drugs actually is contributing to this opioid-overdose emergency in our city, because it forces people into unsafe drug practices and actually presents a barrier to those who might be interested in seeking help for addressing opioid-use disorders", she said.

In addition to calling for the federal government to boost prevention, harm reduction and addictions treatment services, the motion asks Ottawa to put together an expert task force to explore options "for the legal regulation of all drugs in Canada".

The report, which is expected to be tabled at the city's board of health meeting next week, includes a survey that suggests Torontonians do not believe the current approach to drugs is working.

Drug problems can affect everyone, said Dr.de Villa, but marginalized people are hit the hardest - those experiencing poverty, homelessness and mental-health issues, and people of colour.

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The idea of treating drugs as a public health and social issue rather than a criminal one has been steadily gaining steam across Canada.

Toronto continues to grapple with a crisis in opioid use. There were 303 opioid overdose deaths in Toronto a year ago - a 63 per cent increase from 2016 and a 121 per cent increase from 2015 - according to Toronto Public Health, citing preliminary data from the Office of the Chief Coroner of Ontario.

A government report last month registered 3,987 opioid-related deaths in 2017, most involving fentanyl, which is 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin.

The overdose crisis, Dr.de Villa said, is a public-health issue, and deaths stemming from it can be prevented. Last year, almost 4,000 Canadians died due to opioids - more than the number of Canadians who died due to motor vehicle accidents and homicides combined.

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