TORONTO – Toronto’s top public health official believes the time has come to decriminalize all drugs for personal use and will be asking the city’s board of health this week to push the federal government for action on the issue.
Dr. Eileen de Villa, the city’s medical officer of health, said she wouldn’t be doing her job if she didn’t advocate for what she thinks is the right way to tackle drug addiction, a problem that is getting worse due to the opioid crisis that has left thousands of Canadians dead.
Over the past year, de Villa and her team have been examining scientific literature, talking to other jurisdictions about their approaches to drug use and speaking to drug users and citizens about the issue.
That culminated in a report de Villa will present to the city’s board of health on Monday that recommends pushing the federal government to take a public health approach, rather than a criminal one, to drug use.
De Villa said she asked herself a simple, rhetorical question, about the health of 2.9 million Torontonians.
“If what we’re doing isn’t delivering on the shared goals of optimal community health and reduced harms associated with drugs, and somebody else’s approach, which is more health focused, is actually getting those outcomes we seek, don’t the residents of Toronto deserve the opportunity to explore that different approach?” de Villa said.
The other jurisdictions she examined included Portugal, Switzerland and Germany.
“They are getting reduced drug use rates. They are getting minimized harm associated with drug use and ultimately better community health as a whole,” she said.
The report de Villa will present Monday recommends the city’s board of health call on the federal government to “decriminalize the possession of all drugs for personal use, and scale up prevention, harm reduction, and treatment services.”
It further recommends the board ask the federal government to convene a task force “to explore options for the legal regulation of all drugs in Canada, based on a public health approach.”
De Villa said the board will likely approve the recommendations, which will then trigger a letter to the federal government.
Health Canada said the government is not currently looking at decriminalizing or legalizing all drugs.
“We are committed to a compassionate and evidence-based approach to drug policy, which requires a public health approach when considering and addressing drug issues,” said Health Canada spokeswoman Maryse Durette.
“We are aware that decriminalization, as part of a comprehensive approach to substance use, seems to be working in places like Portugal, but more study would be required as the circumstances are very different in Canada.”
The trigger for the Toronto report was the ongoing opioid problem that has swept the country from the west coast and has made its way eastward over the last several years. The situation has been made worse by the rise of the deadly opioid fentanyl, which police forces say has made its way into cocaine, heroin, even marijuana.
De Villa said prevention and harm reduction strategies are undermined due to the criminalization of drugs.
“Whatever potential harms there are associated with drugs, they’re always worsened if they have to purchase and consume drugs illegally,” she said.
In 2017, there were 303 opioid overdose related deaths in Toronto, a 63 per cent increase compared to the previous year, the report said.
According to a Health Canada report last month, nearly 4,000 Canadians died from an apparent opioid overdose in 2017.