‘Indefensible’ that Toronto’s drug decriminalization request has not yet been granted, lawyer says


OTTAWA — Toronto’s application to decriminalize drug possession remains pending nearly a year after it was made, in part because of “political cowardice” in Ottawa, according to a harm reduction advocate.

“People are dying because the drug supply is contaminated and toxic. Criminalizing people for simple personal possession and use of drugs is going to do more harm than good,” said Daniel Werb, director of Toronto’s Center for Drug Policy Evaluation, which helped the city with its government petition. federal.

“The federal government holds the cards. They decide if it will move forward.

The current delay, Werb said, “is just another in a series of political delays that are essentially indefensible in terms of a rapid and agile response to Canada’s overdose epidemic.”

He said it also highlights a bigger problem: Ottawa’s reluctance to protect drug addicts from an increasingly toxic and deadly supply.

“From my point of view, it’s political cowardice and a lack of courage,” he said. “If the federal government really wanted to end the overdose epidemic, it would have regulated the currently unregulated drug markets.

“It’s that simple.”

In January, Toronto Public Health filed its first application to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs.

The effort to reduce toxic drug overdose deaths follows a similar request from British Columbia, which has been granted waivers of prosecution for certain drug possession charges starting next year.

Toronto’s medical officer of health says the city is still pursuing the strategy, but did not elaborate on the reasons for the delay.

“We are working on the details to make sure the model we propose makes sense for Toronto and takes into account our unique circumstances,” Dr. Eileen de Villa told reporters in Ottawa on Wednesday.

De Villa did not specify what those circumstances are and what remains to be negotiated between Toronto Public Health and the federal government.

“We are in active discussions with Health Canada on the details of the model,” Toronto Public Health said in a written statement, which said “demographic and geographic considerations” are determining factors for a “made in Toronto” program. “.

Toronto’s application remains with Health Canada.

The office of Mental Health and Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett said it could not answer questions from the Star about the approval process ‘out of respect for applicants’ until the review is not finalized.

However, he said exemption requests are “carefully reviewed on a case-by-case basis, taking into account all relevant considerations, including evidence of benefit and risk or harm to the health and safety of Canadians.” .

According to Werb, this is not enough.

“I think (the delay) is just another in a series of political delays that are essentially indefensible in terms of a quick and agile response to the overdose epidemic in Canada,” he said.

Werb thinks the federal government may be reluctant to move forward with Toronto’s request before seeing the results of the pioneer program in British Columbia.

“They’re going to wait a while if that’s the case,” he said.

“It will take months, even a year, to understand what its impacts are, at least in the short term.”

In May, British Columbia was granted a three-year exemption from criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use. It will enter into force in January 2023.

De Villa said Wednesday that Toronto “can learn a lot from BC, but (the circumstances) are actually quite different.”

Toronto’s decriminalization plan promotes expanded social supports in housing and pharmaceutical-grade alternatives to illicit opioids. His brief called for the proposed exemption to apply to all drugs.

Just last week, Toronto Public Health issued an alert about an increase in suspected opioid-related deaths and the potency of illicit fentanyl.

The alert says paramedics have responded to at least 15 suspected fatal overdose calls in the past four weeks, receiving at least five calls on some days.

According to Toronto Public Health, 4,950 opioid-related deaths were reported in the city from April 2021 to March 2022. This represents a 61% increase from pre-pandemic numbers.

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