The Toronto Board of Health became the first in Canada to officially call on the federal government to decriminalize all drugs, according to the city’s chief medical officer Eileen de Villa.
Along with removing the penalties for personal drug use, the motion, passed unanimously on Monday, compels the board to lobby the federal government to add more harm-reduction and treatment services, and convene a task force to examine the feasibility of legalizing and regulating all drugs the same way as alcohol.
Angie Hamilton, the executive director of Families for Addiction Recovery, said that while she wasn’t doing a “happy dance,” she was “relieved” at the decision.
“I am really grateful to this board for taking this bold step, which is going to save lives,” she said. “It’s going to save our kids.”
Addiction is “not a moral failing, but a chronic illness,” Ms. Hamilton said during the meeting. “We expect our children to receive treatment, not punishment, for being ill. That rarely happens today.”
The meeting saw other experts support the motion, including Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre worker Matt Johnson, Toronto Harm Reduction Task Force educator Peter Leslie and Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario senior policy analyst Lynn Anne Mulrooney.
Ms. Mulrooney said decriminalization was a good first step, but that fully regulated legalization is the ideal way forward.
“Decriminalization does not address the current problem of people dying from poisoned drug supply,” she said.
Toronto saw 303 opioid-overdose deaths in 2017, a 63-per-cent increase from the year before and more than double the amount from 2015. Fentanyl was involved in three-quarters of overdose deaths in Ontario between August and October, 2017.
The motion stemmed from a report submitted by Ms. de Villa, the chief medical officer, outlining the harms of the war on drugs and proposed benefits of decriminalization. It found that criminalization has led to increased overdoses and infections; negative stigma against drug users that decreases their quality of life; and billions of dollars wasted enforcing drug laws.
It looked at places that have decriminalized drugs, such as Portugal and Czech, and found that HIV rates and drug-related deaths dropped and police reported improved community relations; California saw more than US$1-billion in savings to the criminal-justice system in the 10 years after decriminalizing cannabis possession.
The move isn’t likely to get support from the new Ontario government. Premier Doug Ford has made known his personal opposition to harm-reduction efforts such as supervised drug-use sites – although he said he’ll consult with experts to determine policy. His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Ms. Mulrooney said she hopes the motion will start a national conversation on harm reduction, especially if other nurses’ associations speak out as the RNAO has done.
“I think there’s a lot of nurses … that have already moved for a long time towards harm reduction and supervised injection services, so I think this is the next logical step,” she said.
Ms. Hamilton is also hopeful that the decision could eventually affect the law. People who use drugs can be seen as less credible, she said, so it was important to have the weight of public health behind them.
“We’re guided by science and compassion,” she said. “And that’s what should guide all of these discussions. And I really think if we did that, we would be saving an awful lot of lives.”