Toronto is preparing to ask the federal government to decriminalize the possession of illicit drugs for personal use in the city, saying the move is needed as drug-related deaths reach record highs.
A public consultation on the matter wrapped up this week and the city's top doctor said Toronto expects to send its request to Health Canada later this fall.
"In Toronto, deaths involving all substances, including opioids, have increased to record highs," Dr. Eileen de Villa said in a statement. "The situation remains urgent and more action is needed to respond."
Toronto Public Health said a total of 521 confirmed opioid overdose deaths were recorded in the city last year. That represented a 78 per cent increase from deaths recorded in 2019, it said.
City data also indicates that in the first three months of this year, paramedics responded to 1,173 suspected opioid overdose calls, including 93 involving a death. That compared to 46 calls involving death in the first three months of 2020.
The decriminalization request Toronto is preparing – which will ask Health Canada for an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act for personal drug use in the city – would follow a similar one made by Vancouver in May.
Leigh Chapman, a registered nurse and co-organizer with the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society, called Toronto's planned federal request "a step in the right direction."
She lost her 43-year-old brother, Brad, to an opioid overdose in August 2015 — a few weeks after he was released from jail. His death led to a coroner's inquest that yielded a series of recommendations to better safeguard vulnerable people living with addictions.
One of the recommendations was that the federal government should consider decriminalizing the possession of all drugs for personal use and increase prevention, harm reduction and treatment services.
Chapman said those measures could have saved her brother.
"Brad's whole life would have been different if he hadn't had ... literally a cycle of incarceration for probably over 20 years on and off," she said.
A 2016 study published in the journal PLOS ONE found that between 2006 and 2013 in Ontario, one in ten drug toxicity deaths in adults occurred within one year of release from provincial incarceration.
"I think we need to reduce the harms from criminalization to be able to better meet people's needs, meet them where they're at and see how we can help them stay alive," Chapman said.
Coun. Joe Cressy, chair of the Toronto Board of Health, said city staff are "currently consulting on the details of what an exemption would look like" when it comes to decriminalizing drugs for personal use in Canada's most populous city.
"We are dealing with a public health crisis," Cressy said. "And the way to address it is with a health response."
Decriminalization is a key element in a series of measures needed to tackle the overdose crisis, alongside treatments, increased harm reduction services and a safer supply, Cressy said.
"It is a critical piece and I think that the chorus of experts, from law enforcement to healthcare, who are calling for such action nationally, is only growing because people continue to die from preventable deaths," he said.
Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health recently released a statement on the issue, saying making criminals out of substance users has been ineffective and counterproductive.
Cressy added that while Toronto's request to the federal government would be specific to the city, national decriminalization was something the local board of health has called for every year since 2018.
"A nationwide framework, something that CAMH has called for, that Toronto's Board of Health has long called for, could and should be done immediately," he said.
Health Canada did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 2, 2021.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Noushin Ziafati, The Canadian Press