TORONTO—Canada’s largest city is the latest jurisdiction aiming to decriminalize drug possession as it faces a surging overdose epidemic.
Toronto’s board of health this month said it would seek permission from Canada’s federal government to allow drug users to carry small amounts of drugs for personal use, including heroin, fentanyl and cocaine, without fear of prosecution. The exemption wouldn’t cover drug trafficking, which would remain a criminal offense.
City officials hope that decriminalization will make it easier for people to get help. They say it could also make it easier for drug users to get jobs and stable housing because they won’t have criminal records.
Toronto’s efforts follow those of Vancouver, which filed for a similar exemption in May, and those of the province of British Columbia, which filed its own application for decriminalization in November. Last year, Oregon approved a plan to decriminalize drug possession, while New York City last month became the first city in the U.S. to open supervised injection sites.
A similar decriminalization proposal was made by lawmakers in Maine, although the state Senate defeated a bill passed by the state’s House of Representatives.
The new policies and proposals come as officials say they are seeking ways of handling an overdose epidemic that has swept across North America. Drug users are dying in record numbers as an increasingly toxic drug supply overwhelms the black market.
“The current approaches to drug policy and regulation are not working,” said
Dr. Eileen de Villa,
medical officer for Toronto, during a presentation to the city’s board of health on Dec. 6.
In the U.S., provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that more than 100,000 people are expected to have died from drug overdoses in the 12 months ended April 30, 2021, the first time deaths have crossed that threshold.
In Canada, which has one-ninth of the U.S.’s population, 6,265 people died from opioid overdoses last year. Another 1,772 people died in the first three months of this year, on pace to surpass last year’s tally.
According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, drug arrests and convictions have dropped in Oregon since February. Property crimes, often related to drug use, have also fallen this year.
New York hasn’t decriminalized possession, but drug users can now go to two locations in Upper Manhattan and use drugs under supervision, so they can be treated if they overdose. Such facilities have been available in Vancouver since 2003 and in Toronto since 2017.
According to Toronto city statistics, 531 people died from opioid overdoses in 2020, the most in a single year. The number represented an 81% increase from 2019. As of June this year, 282 people died, on pace to set a record.
In Vancouver, 414 people died from drug overdoses last year. Another 355 died between January and September this year. As overdoses increased, British Columbia introduced a policy to prescribe pharmaceutical versions of opioids to users.
Toronto officials expect to file an application with the federal health department by the end of this year. City officials then expect to create a detailed plan for how decriminalization would work, including specifying the amount of drugs people could legally carry and consume for personal use, and what services would be provided to help users.
Criminalizing drug use is expensive and the returns don’t justify the cost, Dr. de Villa said. In the Canadian province of Ontario, where Toronto is located, local governments spent $3.7 billion Canadian dollars, the equivalent of almost $3 billion, in 2017 to enforce drug laws, but overdose deaths have continued to increase.
a Toronto city councilor and chair of the city’s board of health, said in an interview that clinical evidence supports the idea that drug use should be treated as a health issue and not as a criminal act.
Though the timeline for approval from the Canadian federal government is unclear, Mr. Cressy said he has been encouraged by Prime Minister
willingness to deal with the problem.
Mr. Trudeau in October named a new minister of mental health and addictions, and Mr. Cressy said the step suggested that the federal government is serious about the issue.
Decriminalization will allow those suffering from addiction to more easily get access to health services. Mr. Cressy said that just removing criminal penalties alone won’t stop the overdoses. The city is also calling for more funding for addiction treatment and overdose prevention services.
“The trick is to have a system with supports in place,” he said.
Mr. Trudeau, for his part, said during a recent television interview that his government is open to the idea of decriminalizing drugs, although he didn’t commit to taking the step.
“We are looking where to do that, if to do that, how to do that, in partnership with the provinces,” he said.
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