Toronto Is One Step Closer to Decriminalizing Personal Drug Possession

The city's chief medical officer of health said criminalization is not an effective way of addressing the drug poisoning crisis.
Boxes of heroin, meth, and cocaine.
The Drug User Liberation Front hands out boxes of free drugs in Vancouver as a form of protest. Photo by author

Canada’s largest city is pushing ahead with a proposal to decriminalize low-level drug possession, a move that is being supported by the police. 

As first reported by the Toronto Star, Toronto’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Eileen de Villa recommended the city’s board of health vote to request an exemption to the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act that would allow people to carry small amounts of drugs without being arrested. 

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The move follows similar requests already made in Vancouver and British Columbia. Earlier this year, Oregon became the first U.S. state to decriminalize low-level possession of drugs. 

In her recommendation, de Villa said the current approach to addressing the drug poisoning crisis—which has led to thousands of annual overdose deaths in Canada—is “not working.” 

“There is an urgent need for a comprehensive public health approach to drug policy that removes structural barriers to health care and social services, provides alternatives to the toxic drug supply, and enhances and expands services to improve the health and well-being of Toronto’s communities,” de Villa said in the report. 

Toronto Police Chief James Ramer echoed support for decriminalization of simple possession in the report, noting that scaling up on prevention, harm reduction, and treatment services are a “more effective way to address the public health and public safety harms associated with substance use.”

Vancouver submitted its proposal for decriminalizing drugs to Health Canada in June. It would allow for people to possess two grams of opioids; three grams of powder cocaine; 10 rocks or one gram of crack cocaine; and 1.5 grams of amphetamines. 

However, critics of the plan, including the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, a local activist group, say those limits are too low and will still result in people being punished for using drugs. Drug policy experts have repeatedly said a safe supply of clean drugs is needed in addition to decriminalization in order to curb overdoses. 

Montreal, Canada’s second-largest city, is also in the process of asking the Canadian federal government to decriminalize simple possession of drugs. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who legalized cannabis has so far pushed back on decriminalization, telling CBC last year it was not a “silver bullet.”

De Villa will lay out a case for decriminalization to the city’s board of health at a December 6 meeting, after which the board will vote on how to proceed. 

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