Decriminalize all drugs for personal use, Toronto Public Health recommends in new report

City council should push the federal government to decriminalize the possession of all drugs for personal use while scaling up harm reduction efforts, Toronto Public Health is recommending.

If approved, city's board of health would push Canadian government for major change

Toronto Public Health is recommending the city ask the federal government to decriminalize the possession of all drugs for personal use amid a growing number of overdose deaths. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

City council should push the federal government to decriminalize the possession of all drugs for personal use while scaling up harm reduction efforts, Toronto Public Health is recommending.

The recommendation comes following a public consultation process that found many Torontonians don't believe the current approach to dealing with drugs is working — especially with opioid-overdose deaths reaching record levels across Canada.

Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto's Medical Officer of Health, said in a news release that the criminalization of those who use drugs is adding to the problem.

The situation remains urgent and too many people are still dying.- Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto's Medical Officer of Health

"It forces people into unsafe drug use practices and creates barriers to seeking help," she said in a news release.

In 2017, Ontario's chief coroner found there were 303 opioid overdose deaths in Toronto. That marks a 121 per cent increase from 2015.

The city has responded by opening several supervised-injection sites, however many who work with drug users warn it's not enough. De Villa's report seems to agree.

"While considerable work has been done, the situation remains urgent and too many people are still dying. This is why I am calling on the federal government to take urgent action," she said in a statement. 

New approach needed

Toronto Public Health, in its new report, also recommends the city's board of health urge Ottawa to create a task force to explore options for the legal regulation of all drugs.

Speaking on CBC's Here and Now Monday afternoon, de Villa said the scientific evidence and experience of other jurisdictions suggests criminalizing drug use is not the answer.

"What we need to do is take a more public health focused approach, treating drug use as a social issue rather than a criminal issue, which our current regime does," de Villa said.

A new report, which is expected to be tabled at the city's board of health meeting next week, includes a survey that suggests Torontonians do not believe the current approach to drugs is working. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"Those potential harms are always exacerbated or made worse when people are forced to consume, or produce, or obtain those drugs in the realm of the illegal," she said. 

"What we need to do is take a more public health focused approach, treating drug use as a social issue rather than a criminal issue which our current regime does."

The city's board of health is set to vote on the matter next Monday.  

With files from Here and Now