Toronto's public health unit wants to decriminalize all drugs for personal use. Will London follow suit?

Toronto's medical officer of health says the federal government should decriminalize all drugs for personal use. London's own medical officer isn't there yet—but says it's something the local health unit should consider.

"I think we need to see is this something that our country could be doing in the next few years."

Chris Mackie is the medical officer of health at the Middlesex-London Health Unit. Mackie hasn't endorsed decriminalizing drugs for personal use, but says he thinks it's something the health unit should consider going forward. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

Faced with record-high levels of opioid overdose deaths, Toronto's medical officer of health, Dr. Eileen de Villa, says she wants the federal government to decriminalize all drugs for personal use. 

That idea carries weight with Dr. Chris Mackie, de Villa's counterpart in London. Although the Middlesex-London Health Unit (MLHU) doesn't have an official position on the matter yet, Mackie says it's time to at least consider the possibility.

"I think we need to look down the line past decriminalization of marijuana, and see is this something that our country could be doing in the next few years," said Mackie. 

At this time, Londoners can use drugs at the temporary overdose prevention site at 186 King St., which operates under an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Recreational marijuana use will also be made legal across the country on Oct. 17, 2018.

Opioids among the drugs the CPHA would like to see decriminalized. (Patrick Sison/Associated Press)

For Mackie, there's a direct link between drug prohibition and the opioid crisis. Prohibition incentivizes those who smuggle drugs to seek more and more concentrated versions of their drugs, he said.

"That allows them to smuggle it more easily, and that also means that sometimes people will overdose because it's so much easier to overdose on the concentrated forms," said Mackie.

Making matters worse is that those who face charges for drug possession can wind up being locked out of the formal job market. That pushes people into further illegal activity, such as dealing drugs, Mackie said. 

"That vicious cycle is only exacerbated by throwing street level users into jail, and I think the police see that every day."

Police also stand to benefit from decriminalization, Mackie said, because it would free up their time. Rather than spending hours chasing street-level drug dealers, officers could instead focus on organized criminals who deal in large-scale drug trafficking, he said.

And although Mackie maintains that he hasn't yet endorsed decriminalizing drugs, he said he doesn't see an alternative that would have the same level of impact.

"There are a number of things we can do around the margins of this issue that will help reduce the overall negative impact," he said.

"Unfortunately I don't think we will end this drug crisis until we seriously consider implementing decriminalization and eliminate prohibition."