Marijuana legalization poses 'a number of issues,' Toronto's new medical officer says

Toronto’s new medical officer of health says there “is a role” for the legalization and regulation of marijuana, but because it’s “not a completely benign substance” she will be advocating for a public health approach to changing the rules around pot.

Dr. Eileen de Villa started her new post in Toronto this week after serving as Peel's top doctor

Dr. Eileen de Villa says marijuana "is not a completely benign substance," so she would like to see a "public health approach" when it comes to legalization. (Toronto Public Health)

Toronto's new medical officer of health says there "is a role" for the legalization and regulation of marijuana, but because it's "not a completely benign substance" she will be advocating for a public health approach to changing the rules around pot.

Dr. Eileen de Villa's comments follow a CBC News exclusive report Monday that the federal government plans to make marijuana legal by July 1, 2018. The governing Liberals are expected to unveil legislation during the week of April 10.

De Villa said Tuesday that the legalization of marijuana poses "a number of issues and concerns" when it comes to public health, including how to protect people who may be vulnerable to its effects, the availability of treatment services and how best to help residents take care of their own health.

"I think we appreciate that there is a role for legalization and regulation, but this is not a completely benign substance," De Villa told Metro Morning, the morning after her first day on the job.

"The question is how do we adopt a public health approach that ensures that we're maintaining the health status of the population, and protecting those who are most vulnerable to the negative effects associated with this?"

While the federal government will ensure that the marijuana supply is safe and will be tasked with licensing producers, the provinces will be able to decide how it's distributed and sold. They will also be able to set the price.

De Villa said she will wait to hear more details, including what the province plans, before commenting further.

"But I assure you that as the official public health agency for the city, we will be adopting and advocating for a strong public health approach to marijuana legalization and regulation," she said.

Staff to address opioiod crisis 'as quickly as possible'

During the Metro Morning interview, De Villa also spoke about the ongoing national opioid crisis, noting that last week, the Toronto Board of Health adopted a "comprehensive" overdose plan for the city that was developed by the then-acting medical officer of health.

The plan, which contains more than 25 recommendations for city staff to implement, followed a sharp increase in overdose deaths in the city over more than a decade.

The city has seen a 73 per cent increase in overdose deaths between 2004 and 2015, with many of those being linked to powerful opioids like fentanyl. In 2015, 135 opioid users died after overdosing.

De Villa said she is focused on addressing the opioid crisis "as quickly as possible" and is making it a priority for public health staff to implement the plan.

"I'll be watching over the next several weeks to make sure that this work does move forward as we expect it should," she said.

Asked whether she will be comfortable with the advocacy part of the job, De Villa replied that she considers it "critical" to public health practice.

"I think that the notion and the role of public health is to improve the health status of the population and to reduce disparities in the health status of the population," she said.

"And part of that has to be taking on an advocacy role in order to ensure that we're managing things that might seem outside of the realm of public health, but play a significant role in terms of the health status of the population. So issues around income and housing and how our environment actually impacts on the ability of our people to engage in healthy behaviours."

With files from David Cochrane and John Rieti