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Ford government ‘100% opposed’ to Toronto’s drug decriminalization bid: health minister

The Ontario government says it is “100 per cent opposed” to Toronto Public Health’s bid to have small amounts of illegal drugs for personal use decriminalized in the city.

In a public letter addressed to Toronto’s medical officer of health, Health Minister Sylvia Jones and Solicitor General Michael Kerzner call the request “misguided” and warned the agency against pursuing the application further.

“Under no circumstances will our government ever support your request, which would only add to crime and public drug use while doing nothing to support people struggling with addiction,” the cabinet ministers write.

The pair go on to say that decriminalization “does not work” but rather “encourages dangerous behaviour in public spaces” and compromises law enforcement’s ability to keep communities safe. They also reference B.C.’s recent decision to backtrack on its own experiment with decriminalization.

“If Toronto Public Health fails to rescind its misguided application, we will be forced to explore all options available to us,” the letter says, without elaborating further on what those options may be.

The city made a request to Health Canada in early 2022 for an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. The application was supported by both the Toronto Police Service and harm reduction experts and advocates. Similarly, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health has also called on the province to decriminalize possession of unregulated drugs for personal use.

Toronto Public Health reported 733 suspected drug-related deaths in the city in 2023, including 523 deaths confirmed or likely caused by opioid toxicity. 

Photograph from a Zoom call showing a woman in a suit
Toronto’s medical officer of health Dr. Eileen de Villa said on Thursday afternoon she could not rescind the request without direction from the Toronto Board of Health. (CBC News)

In an interview with CBC News Toronto Thursday, Toronto’s medical officer of health Dr. Eileen de Villa said it is a “little unusual to receive a letter as a public servant directly from elected officials.”

De Villa said she submitted the exemption request to Health Canada under the direction of the Toronto Board of Health. She said she would require direction from the board to rescind the request. 

The drug overdose epidemic requires a full range of interventions, de Villa said, including policy, harm reduction and accessible treatment options. 

“This is an entire spectrum of interventions that is going to be required, as is the case with any other health condition,” de Villa said. “I know of no health condition that’s solved by only one simple intervention.”  

In a statement released Thursday, de Villa said decriminalization is one tool “supported by the best available evidence” to address the epidemic.

Discussions around request ‘active and ongoing’: city

The formal status of Toronto’s application has been the subject of confusion in recent weeks. The prime minister and the federal minister for mental health and addictions have both separately said that the city doesn’t currently have an “active” application for the government to consider. 

Federal Minister for Mental Health and Addictions Ya’ara Saks said earlier this month the request was “incomplete” as Health Canada was waiting for responses to questions sent months ago about the application. 

Meanwhile, the city said discussions around the request are “active and ongoing.”

CBC Toronto has reached out to Toronto Public Health for comment.

Drug decriminalization has become a political flashpoint in Ottawa, with the federal Conservatives publicly calling on the federal government to deny Toronto’s request. 

Last week, the federal government approved B.C.’s request to recriminalize the use of unregulated drugs in public spaces such as hospitals and restaurants. While adults would still be allowed to carry small amounts of illicit drugs and use them in private, they could be arrested for using them in public.

Decriminalization backed by city officials since at least 2018

Decriminalization has been publicly backed by Toronto officials since at least 2018 for its stated goal to reduce stigma and treat the overdose crisis as a health issue, rather than a criminal one. Criminalizing drug possession, Toronto’s application says, only makes it harder for people who use drugs to get support.

The proposal calls for decriminalization to be paired with a host of more direct public health responses, including scaled up harm reduction and mental health services.

The Ontario government, meanwhile, has been reviewing all treatment and consumption sites in the province and said that work is now complete. It said it will enact “enhanced accountability measures,” with the health minister’s office and would provide more details in a few weeks.

Last fall, the province paused approving new supervised consumption and treatment sites as it conducted its review.

The province also tasked Unity Health Toronto with a comprehensive review of a consumption site in Toronto’s east end after a 44-year-old mother of two was killed by a stray bullet nearby after a fight between three men.

Police have laid charges against several people in the death of Karolina Huebner-Makurat, including accessory after the fact and obstructing justice counts laid against a woman who worked at the South Riverdale Community Health Centre.

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