Canada's Biggest Health Board Calls for Drugs to be Decriminalized

The move comes amid a record-breaking number of opioid-related deaths across the country.

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Jul 17 2018, 7:51pm

The Toronto Board of Health has called on the Canadian federal government to decriminalize personal use and possession of all drugs.

The health board, which is the largest in Canada, voted unanimously on Monday to support the progressive stance in drug policy via a recommendation from the city’s chief medical officer, Dr. Eileen de Villa.

Canada has been faced with the impacts of the opioid crisis for years, a public health issue that has only compounded. Last year, the country saw a record-breaking official death toll of nearly 4,000 opioid-related deaths.

A report de Villa authored that was released June 28 referenced the stigma surrounding drug use the “serious health and social harms” criminalization has resulted in.

“People from all walks of life have used alcohol and other drugs throughout history, for many reasons,” part of the report read.

De Villa referenced how some people “develop problematic use or become dependent on drugs”: “The reasons for this are complex, and include genetic, biological and social factors, including experiences of trauma.”

De Villa gave examples of other countries in her report that have employed alternative drug policy, including the highly regarded Portugal model of decriminalization.

Toronto city councillor Joe Cressy commented on the move to endorse the chief medical officer’s decriminalization recommendation. “I don’t believe that drug use is safe, nor does endorsing the position in support of decriminalizing of drugs advocate for drug use,” he said, according to the Toronto Star.

Decriminalization and legalization of drugs are often the subject of conflation. Under decriminalization, personal use and possession up to a certain amount would be legal. However, drugs would still be illegal to sell and produce—something that would only be altered by legalization and regulation, such as is about to happen with cannabis in Canada.

Because decriminalization does not address the supply side (or, as it stands, the black market), de Villa recommended “the Board of Health call on the federal government to convene a task force to explore options for the legal regulation of all drugs in Canada, based on a public health approach.” The supply side in particular is a significant issue in Canada and others that have been impacted by adulterated substances, especially by the presence of fentanyl and fentanyl analogues.

“Not only do Canada’s drug laws need to be changed, but we need to scale up prevention, harm reduction and treatment services to ensure we can provide the supports that people require,” de Villa said in the report.

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