Toronto seeks federal exemption to decriminalize drug use as opioid overdoses rise

Following a similar move by Vancouver, Toronto is preparing to ask Health Canada for an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act that would decriminalize the possession of all drugs for personal use.

City wants Health Canada to grant exemption that changes drug laws in Toronto

If the city's submission to the federal government is successful, possession of all drugs intended for personal use will be decriminalized. (CBC)

By the end of the day, Toronto will be one step closer toward requesting the federal government decriminalize drug possession in the city. 

Following a similar move by Vancouver, Toronto is preparing to ask Health Canada for an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act that would decriminalize the possession of all drugs for personal use. 

The city has been gathering feedback from Torontonians on that plan for several months, Monday is the last day to fill out a survey on the issue.

After that, the city will finalize and submit its request to Ottawa. 

"Currently, Toronto Public Health is working with various health stakeholders to develop the details of that submission, which we anticipate coming forward later in the fall," said Board of Health chair Joe Cressy in an interview last week with Radio-Canada.

The urgency to decriminalize is increasing as the number of suspected overdoses and overdose-related deaths grows, said Cressy.

Overdose numbers highest since data records began

Data from August 2021 shows Toronto Paramedic Services received 689 calls for non-fatal suspected opioid overdoses — a major jump from the previous month, and more than double the numbers recorded in August 2020. 

The number of fatal calls also continues to climb, with 30 suspected overdose deaths logged in August, compared to 15 in August 2020 and nine in August 2019.

Dr. Rita Shahin, associate medical officer of health with Toronto Public Health, called it "one of the highest numbers we've seen since we began recording the data."

Dr. Rita Shahin described a number of factors that have contributed to spiking overdose numbers in the city, including an increasingly toxic drug supply. (Grant Linton/ CBC Toronto)

Shahin and other health experts describe a worsening crisis playing out over the course of the pandemic and in the years leading up to it, compounded since March 2020 by isolation, reduced capacity at harm-reduction programs, and increasingly toxic drug supplies due to border closures and subsequent supply chain interruptions.

"Last year, in 2020, we saw about an 80 per cent increase in overdose deaths," Shahin said. "And the numbers continue to increase in 2021."

A long-running debate

Cressy said other cities, including Montreal and Ottawa, have also called on the federal government to decriminalize drugs — the latest chapter in a decades-old debate about drug laws in Canada. 

He said that it's "so frustrating" the federal government hasn't made any moves already, given that such an exemption could be granted by the Minister of Health without requiring that any legislation be passed.

Rhiannon Thomas, program coordinator for CounterFIT Women's Harm Reduction at the South Riverdale Community Health Centre, also sees decriminalization as an essential response to prevent future overdoses.

"This trajectory we have been on of increasing opioid deaths is going to continue until we really start changing how we deal with the situation," she said. 

Boosters of decriminalization say it reduces the stigma around getting help for addiction and saves money that can then be redirected into other programs — pointing to other jurisdictions such as Portugal as proof. 

Almost 20 years ago, Portugal decriminalized all drugs and now boasts one of the lowest addiction rates in all of Europe.

Meanwhile, some of the loudest recent criticisms of decriminalization have come from conservative politicians, such as Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. 

"Handing somebody who's deep in addiction a needle is not a continuum of care. I don't even think it's terribly compassionate to facilitate addiction rather than to offer a full spectrum of services for recovery and lifetime treatment," Kenney said in July 2020.

Liberals will not commit to supporting city's request

The Ministry of Health did not respond to specific questions from Radio-Canada regarding Health Minister Patty Hajdu's stance on decriminalization. 

"We recognize the different approaches cities and provinces are taking and are supportive of their work," wrote a spokesperson in a statement. 

"We know there is more to do and our government will remain engaged with them to move these health-based approaches forward."

During the election campaign, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made similar comments.

His party did not commit to decriminalization, as the NDP, Bloc Quebecois, and Greens did, instead saying that his government would work with community partners interested in those actions.

However, Trudeau had previously come out more strongly against decriminalization, telling CBC Vancouver last fall that the move is "not a silver bullet."

"We're prioritizing the things that are going to make the biggest difference immediately," he said then. 

"The opioid crisis is much more of a health issue rather than a justice issue."

With files from Dale Manucdoc, Camille Feireisen and Sarah St-Pierre