Ontario NDP would decriminalize simple drug possession, Liberals not considering it
News comes after Ottawa announced small-scale possession of illicit drugs will be decriminalized in B.C.
Ontario's New Democrats would work with Ottawa on decriminalizing drugs for personal use if the party is elected to form government this week, but the provincial Liberals aren't considering a similar move.
The issue emerged on the last day of the election campaign in Ontario, following the announcement of a three-year agreement between British Columbia and the federal government that means people won't be charged for possessing up to 2.5 grams of some illicit drugs in an effort to curb overdose deaths.
Ontario has not submitted a proposal to follow suit, but Toronto's top doctor did earlier this year.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said decriminalizing simple possession of drugs is part of her party's plan to address the overdose crisis, along with lifting a cap on safe drug consumption sites and improving access to treatment.
"It is about saving lives, and that's what we have to do," Horwath said at a Wednesday campaign event in Brampton, Ont.
"We have to do better, and we can do better, so yes, absolutely, making sure that we have a safe drug supply, that we decriminalize simple possession, but most importantly, that we provide the services that people need to try to help them get well."
Horwath also noted that it was a New Democrat government in British Columbia that made the first-in-Canada decriminalization policy happen.
Ontario's New Democrats have also promised to declare the opioid crisis a public health emergency. Horwath said conversations around the limit of drugs exempted under a decriminalization policy — whether she would ask for a 4.5 gram limit as B.C. did — would have to happen with experts before making a submission to the federal government.
Liberal party not considering similar move
A spokeswoman for the Liberal campaign said the party isn't considering decriminalizing drugs.
At an afternoon media event in Toronto, Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said decriminalization is "not in our plan right now" but pointed to other things his party is proposing to fight the overdose crisis.
The Liberal party has said it will restart an opioid task force, expand access to the overdose reversal medication naloxone and lift the cap on new consumption and treatment sites that was brought in by the Progressive Conservative government.
Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford, who is seeking to hold on to the premier's office, was not scheduled to take media questions for the second day in a row, and his campaign did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the issue.
Ford's government changed the addiction treatment model from safe injection sites to consumption and treatment services in 2019. At the time, 15 sites were approved and some existing overdose-prevention sites were forced to shut down.
The Tories capped the number of sites at 21 and this year approved the province's 17th site.
Ontario Green Leader Mike Schreiner, who is campaigning to grow his one-person caucus, said Tuesday his party would also work with Ottawa to decriminalize drugs, saying Ontario needs to "urgently get moving" on the policy.
Push for decriminalization
There has been a significant push for decriminalization of small amounts of drugs for personal use across the province, including from Ontario chiefs of police and Ontario's Big City Mayors. Dr. Kieran Moore, the province's top public health doctor, supported the idea in the past when he was head of the public health unit in Kingston, Ont.
Ontario has recorded high opioid deaths and hospitalizations recently, with rates surging significantly after the pandemic hit in 2020.
The Office of Ontario's Chief Coroner shared data in May showing 2,819 people died from opioid toxicity in 2021, up from 2,460 deaths the year before. There was a 58 per cent increase in opioid deaths between 2019 and 2020.
Toronto saw 511 opioid overdose deaths in 2021, up 74 per cent from 2019 but down slightly from 2020.
Carolyn Bennett, the federal minister of mental health and addictions, said Tuesday the decriminalization proposal from Toronto Public Health is currently up for consideration, and the government plans to work with the city in the same way it did with B.C. to "get it to a place that would be successful."
But Dr. Tara Gomes, a researcher at Unity Health in Toronto and lead of the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network, said taking a localized approach to decriminalization isn't the best way forward.
"There's a real concern if just Toronto decriminalizes drug use people who move outside of those boundaries, or are visiting Toronto, aren't going to always understand the complexities of that," Gomes said.
"So I think that these really localized approaches are really challenging and we need to broaden it across the country."
Overall, Gomes said decriminalization is only a small part of a broad strategy needed to reduce deaths and overdoses, which she said should include regulating the drug supply and a vast enhancement of harm reduction sites.
Many of the opioid deaths are occurring due to the volatile drug supply, she said. And with such a small mass allowed for consumption, at 2.5 grams, she worries the law could make the situation worse.
"If you're decriminalizing small amounts of the drug, in terms of a measured weight of the drug, then is there going to be a propensity for the supply to become even more potent so that those who are trafficking drugs are at less risk of criminalization?" she said.
"That could actually increase the risk for people because the drugs could actually become more potent."
'Bold action' needed federally, Canadian Drug Policy Coalition says
Nicole Luongo with the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition called B.C.'s plan "partial, incomplete and wholly inadequate," pointing to similar concerns about drugs becoming more potent as a result.
She said politicians who "want to be seen as progressive" on the issue of decriminalization end up watering down the demands of people who use drugs so as "not to rattle voters too much" due to lasting stigma about drug use.
And for generally progressive voters of parties with centre-left platforms — such as the Liberal party in Ontario — Luongo said indifference to the drug crisis means decriminalization isn't a make-or-break issue for them at the polls.
"Even people who might vote for the Liberal Party who would agree that decriminalization is good, I think just at the end of the day, it's not that important to the public," she said, adding that federal regulation and legalization of drugs across the country would be more effective that going one jurisdiction at a time.
"At the end of the day, we need bold action at the federal level," she said.
Once British Columbia's new plan takes effect next year, it will join a small group of world jurisdictions including Portugal, Mexico and the state of Oregon where drug users aren't criminalized for possessing some illicit drugs for personal use.