Toronto bid for drug decriminalization uncertain after BC reverses course

Toronto’s attempt to decriminalize the possession of illegal drugs for personal use has been plunged into uncertainty in recent days, as drug policy experts suggest political debates over British Columbia’s backsliding on the issue have hurt the city ​​request.

The premier and federal mental health and addictions minister have said separately that the city does not currently have an “active” application for the government to consider. Meanwhile, Toronto Public Health has said its application remains in the hands of Health Canada amid ongoing discussions.

Gillian Kolla, a public health researcher, says it’s “not entirely clear what the delay” in the more than two-year application might be. But she worries that the process has been tainted by politicization, with the “very exaggerated” candidacy at risk of not being judged on its merits.

“There appears to be a complete lack of urgency on the part of the federal government to respond to this request,” said Kolla, a Toronto-based drug policy expert.

The city submitted an application to Health Canada in early 2022 for an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. That request came back into focus recently after British Columbia scaled back its own decriminalization pilot program.

The British Columbia government this week won federal approval to criminalize public drug possession, a major step back for the first pilot of its kind in Canada.

Amid pressure from the Conservative opposition to dismiss Toronto’s proposal, federal Mental Health and Addictions Minister Ya’ara Saks called the city’s application “inactive” and said it had not reached her desk.

When asked for clarification, his office called Toronto’s application “incomplete” and said Health Canada was waiting for answers to questions submitted months ago about the application. The questions concerned whether the application, which is supported by Toronto police, “adequately addressed the dual objectives of public health and public safety.”

“As such, the exemption request is not at the status in which it would be before the Minister for consideration and is not an active request,” Saks’ office wrote in a statement this week.

After BC withdrawal, uncertainty clouds Toronto’s decriminalization bid. #Toronto #DrugDecriminalization

The office said it would not comment on the details of the request when asked what questions Health Canada sent and to whom. Health Canada directed multiple requests for comment to the minister’s office.

Toronto Public Health did not respond to questions about the statement from Saks’ office and declined an interview request with chief medical officer of health Dr. Eileen de Villa.

The city’s public health unit has said its decriminalization request is still in the hands of Health Canada, calling discussions “active and ongoing.”

“We are committed to maintaining an open and constructive partnership with Health Canada,” Toronto Public Heath wrote in a statement earlier this week.

DJ Larkin, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, said that “regardless of who is waiting for whom,” Toronto’s well-supported application is languishing in the face of an overly onerous review process.

“We know that law enforcement and communities across the country and around the world already know that criminalization doesn’t work,” Larkin said.

“But because we have to review these applications for exemptions, even in a circumstance where perhaps possession laws are not yet being strictly enforced, this sheds light. It creates one of those sparks of controversy..

The federal government’s pace in addressing Toronto’s request has long drawn criticism from drug users and advocates who say it falls short of the urgency required by an overdose crisis that has left hundreds dead in the city each year. .

Decriminalization has been publicly supported by Toronto officials since at least 2018 for its stated goal of reducing stigma and treating the overdose crisis directly as a health problem, rather than a criminal problem. Criminalizing drug possession, Toronto’s application says, only makes it harder for people who use drugs to get support.

The city submitted a preliminary application to Health Canada in January 2022 and, after further consultation, updated its submission in March 2023. The proposal calls for decriminalization to be combined with a series of more direct public health responses, including increased harm reduction and mental health. Health services.

The city’s proposal goes beyond British Columbia, also protecting youth from criminal charges and extending the exemption to all personally possessed drugs.

The model was co-sponsored by Toronto Police Chief Myron Demkiw, who described the city as already under “de facto” decriminalization in the city’s 2023 presentation. Officers have been ordered to minimize personal possession charges already Federal prosecutors have been ordered to only pursue the most serious personal possession cases, such as those involving drunk driving or posing a risk to children.

However, the province has lampooned the request. Premier Doug Ford has vowed to fight it “tooth and nail,” and on Thursday the province’s associate minister of mental health and addictions called it a “made-in-Toronto disaster.”

A spokesperson for Ontario’s Health Minister noted, however, that cities are free to apply for a federal exemption without provincial approval.

But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office said last week that the province of Ontario “should support any request from Toronto, and they have not.”

British Columbia’s recent decision to recriminalize possession in public spaces marked a major change of direction. Premier David Eby said the move arose after police concerns that officers had limited ways to deal with drug use in public, although critics argue those concerns are unfounded.

“There is no data linking decriminalization to increased public safety problems or even increased public drug use,” said Larkin, who is based in Vancouver.

The political debate has also stoked fears over the issue of decriminalization, Kolla said.

“Even with legalized and regulated drugs like alcohol, we have measures to try to balance, you know, sometimes people are drunk and disruptive in public spaces and how do we deal with that?” he said.

“On the other hand, one of the concerns is that we have such a long history of criminalizing people who use currently illegal drugs, even if they don’t cause any problems or public disorder, that this will be another tool to simply criminalize poverty and criminalize visible homelessness.

With files from Stephanie Taylor and Mickey Djuric in Ottawa.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 9, 2024.

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