‘Indefensible’ that Toronto’s request for drug decriminalization has not yet been granted, lawyer says

OTTAWA -Toronto’s request to decriminalize drug possession remains on hold nearly a year after it was made, in part because of “political cowardice” in Ottawa, a harm reduction advocate says.

“People are dying because the drug supply is contaminated and toxic. Criminalizing people for simple personal possession and use of drugs will do more harm than good,” said Daniel Werb, director of the Toronto-based Center on Drug Policy Evaluation, which helped the city with its request to the federal government.

“It is the federal government that holds the cards. They decide whether this goes ahead.”

The current slowdown, Werb said, “is just one of many policy delays that are essentially indefensible in terms of rapid, deft response to Canada’s overdose epidemic.”

He said it also highlights a bigger problem: Ottawa’s unwillingness to protect drug users from an increasingly toxic and deadly supply.

“From my perspective, it’s political cowardice and a lack of courage,” he said. “If the federal government was serious about ending the overdose epidemic, they would have regulated the current unregulated drug markets.

“It’s that simple.”

In January, Toronto Public Health filed its first petition to decriminalize possession of small amounts of illegal drugs.

The effort to reduce overdose deaths from toxic drugs follows a similar request from British Columbia, which has been granted immunity from prosecution on some drug possession charges starting next year.

Toronto’s health official says the city is still following the strategy, but did not elaborate on reasons for the delay.

“We’re working out the details to make sure the model we’re proposing makes sense for Toronto and takes into account our unique circumstances,” said Dr. Eileen de Villa to reporters in Ottawa on Wednesday.

The Villa did not specify what those circumstances are and what remains to be negotiated between Toronto Public Health and the federal government.

“We are in active discussions with Health Canada about the details of the model,” Toronto Public Health said in a written statement, saying that “population and geographic considerations” are determining factors for a “Toronto-made” plan.

Toronto’s request remains with Health Canada.

The office of Secretary of Mental Health and Addictions, Carolyn Bennett, said it could not respond to the Star’s questions about the approval process “out of respect for applicants” until the review is complete.

However, it said waiver requests “are carefully assessed on a case-by-case basis, taking into account all relevant considerations, including evidence of benefits and risks or harms to the health and safety of Canadians.”

According to Werb, that is not good enough.

“I think (the delay) is just another in a series of policy delays that are essentially indefensible in terms of rapid, nimble response to Canada’s overdose epidemic,” he said.

Werb believes the federal government may be reluctant to move forward with Toronto’s application before seeing the results of British Columbia’s groundbreaking program.

“If that’s the case, they’re going to have to wait a while,” he said.

“It’s going to take months, even a year, to understand the consequences, at least in the short term.”

In May, BC was granted a three-year exemption from criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of illegal drugs for personal use. It will take effect in January 2023.

De Villa said on Wednesday that Toronto “could learn a lot from BC, but (the circumstances) are actually very different.”

Toronto’s decriminalization plan promotes comprehensive social housing support and pharmaceutical alternatives to illicit opioids. Her submission called for the proposed exemption to be applied to all drugs.

Last week, Toronto Public Health issued a warning about an increase in suspected opioid deaths and the potency of illicit fentanyl.

The alert said paramedics responded to at least 15 suspected fatal overdose calls in the past four weeks and received at least five calls on some days.

Toronto Public Health says there were 4,950 opioid-related deaths reported in the city from April 2021 to March 2022. That’s an increase of 61 percent compared to pre-pandemic numbers.

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