Toronto has become the first city in the world - and the first government in North America - to formally endorse a declaration that advocates harm reduction over the war on drugs.
The Vienna Declaration, which slams the criminalization of illicit drugs as a major factor fuelling HIV infection rates, came to the fore during this year's AIDS conference. Its authors called on policy-makers around the world to refocus their approaches to illegal drugs and HIV-AIDS prevention - especially in light of new statistics that show HIV infection rates have climbed back to 1982 levels, largely thanks to infection in injection-drug users.
The declaration has thousands of prominent signatories - including doctors, epidemiologists and former heads of state, but few of the governments at whom it's targeted. On Thursday, council passed a motion to endorse the declaration by a wide margin, 33 votes to 7.
Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq has said the Canadian government has no intention of endorsing the declaration, which takes aim at the Conservatives' tough stand on drug use.
Those behind the declaration had planned to launch a concerted push to win over governments and policy-makers in September. One of the declaration's authors, Evan Wood, University of British Columbia professor and founder of the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy, said he's please Toronto endorsed it "spontaneously" without having to be lobbied.
"We're obviously very excited."
Councillor Kyle Rae, who put forward the motion after attending the AIDS conference in Vienna earlier this summer, said it solidifies the reputation of a city that has been "a leader" in harm reduction since it started giving out condoms in the mid-1980s.
David McKeown, Toronto's medical officer of health, said the declaration is in line with the city's four-pillared approach to drug use.
"That strategy did encompass law enforcement, but equally important pillars were treatment, harm reduction and prevention," he said. "I think there's already work going on now to implement the drug strategy - I'm hopeful that will continue into the future. There's lots of work to be done."
Dr. Wood said Toronto's commitment is an important symbolic step that solidifies Toronto's commitment to fighting drug addiction in more nuanced ways than a "war-on-drugs" stance. It's one he hopes will create more dialogue about changing Canada's strategy on a national level.
"We now have Canada's largest city saying, 'We endorse this' - that's a way to start a conversation and hopefully break down those barriers," he said. "We need to get away from the traditional scenario where drug policy has been exempted from this notion of evidence-based policymaking."
Meanwhile, Toronto's still mulling the possibility of a supervised consumption site.
The city's mayoral candidates are leery when it comes to committing to a supervised consumption site. George Smitherman, Sarah Thomson and Joe Pantalone said while they support harm-reduction strategies already in place in Toronto, they have their doubts the city needs a safe-injection site. Rocco Rossi's campaign declined to comment.
And front-runner Rob Ford was one of the few councillors who voted against the Vienna Declaration endorsement altogether.