Toronto's top doctor recommends decriminalizing possession of small amounts of illicit drugs

Toronto Public Health's offices at Dundas and Victoria St. in Toronto is seen on Monday, August 21, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston

Toronto’s medical officer of health is recommending that possession of small quantities of illegal drugs be decriminalized within the city’s geographical boundaries.

The recommendation, which will be presented to the city's board of health at a meeting next week, states that the city should pursue a federal exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to decriminalize possession of small amounts of illegal drugs in Toronto.

“The status quo approach to the drug poisoning crisis is not working,” Dr. Eileen de Villa’s report to the board of health read.

“There is an urgent need for a comprehensive public health approach to drug policy that removes structural barriers to healthcare and social services, provides alternatives to the toxic drug supply, and enhances and expands services to improve the health and well-being of Toronto's communities.”

According to data released by the city, there were 531 confirmed drug overdose deaths in Toronto in 2020, marking an 81 per cent increase compared to 2019.

“If granted by Health Canada, this exemption would mean that people found in possession of drugs for personal use in Toronto would not be subject to criminal penalties,” the report read.

“All activities associated with drug trafficking, such as production and sale, would remain illegal and subject to the penalties under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.”

Toronto Public Health has already initiated a consultation process on moving forward to request the exemption within Toronto and the move has the support of the Toronto Police Service.

In a letter penned last week, Toronto Police Chief James Ramer said the police service, along with the national associations of chiefs of police, endorse the decriminalization of personal possession of illegal drugs.

“We agree that the current approach to managing drug use does not support safe communities or advance the health of people who use drugs,” the letter read.

“Decriminalization of the simple possession of all drugs- combined with the scale-up of prevention, harm reduction and treatment services- is a more effective way to address the public health and public safety harms associated with substance use.”

Toronto is not the first jurisdiction in Canada to make this request.

Both the City of Vancouver and the province of B.C. are seeking federal approval to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of illegal drugs.

“The Controlled Drugs and Substances Act is administered by Health Canada and establishes the legislative framework that regulates the possession, distribution, and sale of unregulated drugs in Canada,” de Villa,s report read.

“Under Section 56(1) of the Act, the Federal Minister of Health has the authority to exempt jurisdictions, including municipalities and provinces, from provisions of the Act that criminalize drugs if the Minister deems it necessary for a medical purpose or it is in the public interest.”

She noted that supervised consumption services have been permitted to operate in jurisdictions across the country using the federal authority.

The board of health will vote on the recommendation at its next meeting on Dec. 6.