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Part of cannabis laws and regulations

In the next few days, the federal government will receive a letter from Toronto’s public health board, the country’s largest such authority, urging it to decriminalize the use of all recreational drugs.

Given that Canada is the first major industrialized country to fully legalize cannabis, it was somewhat predictable this would be the next discussion to take place. And so it should be: Decriminalization makes a great deal of sense.

Public-health officials have long recognized a reality that elected politicians are only belatedly appreciating: Drug use and dependency are best addressed with the tools of health policy, not those of criminal justice.

The libertarian view holds that all drugs should be legal – it is the individual’s right to decide what goes into their body – but that is too radical. As a practical matter, decriminalization is the better option. It upholds worthwhile social norms – that making, smuggling and trafficking illegal drugs is wrong – while acknowledging that those in the grip of dependency are ill.

This shift in framing can work. In 2001, Portugal stopped arresting and prosecuting drug users, instead doling out small fines and a mandatory appointment with a local panel of health specialists to go over treatment and support options. The results have been broadly successful: In the 1980s, the country had Europe’s highest rates of heroin use and HIV infection. Both have fallen since 2001.

In Canada, the de facto decriminalization of injected drugs is already a fact on the ground in cities that have established supervised sites for intravenous drug users. And earlier this year, the feds eased access to prescriptions for pharmaceutical-grade heroin – a strategy that’s been effective for decades in Europe.

The decriminalization momentum is building. The unanimous call from Toronto’s health board endorses the position of the city’s medical officer of health, Dr. Eileen De Villa, and follows on the heels of similar entreaties from Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson.

Toronto city councillor Joe Mihevc said the hope is to “make a national thing of this.” That’s a very good idea.