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Toronto’s top doctor wants to decriminalize all the drugs including cocaine

Toronto is doubling down on its plans to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of hard drugs as a means to deal with an opioid overdose crisis, even after British Columbia’s Premier asked the federal government last week to make illicit drug use illegal in all public spaces, including inside hospitals, on transit, and in parks.

On Wednesday, Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, issued a statement in response to B.C.’s decision to scale back on its pilot project. The aim of the project, according to de Villa, is to equip law enforcement with additional measures to address public drug use.

“There has been criticism of Toronto’s decriminalization efforts, suggesting we focus on treatment rather than decriminalization. Decriminalization is fundamentally recognizing that addiction is a health issue – and therefore requires health-based interventions. Decriminalization is not legalization,” de Villa wrote in her statement.

She noted that Toronto grapples with the challenges of untreated addiction, mental illnesses, and homelessness — an interconnected crisis that demands solutions from all of society and all levels of government.

“Drug addiction is a health issue, not a criminal issue,” she noted. “Our city urgently needs more publicly funded treatment options and accessible mental health supports, as well as affordable housing, all of which are severely lacking.”

Toronto’s top doctor also said that the city has never seen “this toxic” of a drug supply, this level of homelessness, and this level of mental health crises in our history.

“[W]e know we cannot arrest our way out of this crisis,” she added. “On open public drug use, let me be clear: lighting up a crack pipe on a playground or injecting drugs on the subway is not acceptable and should not be allowed. Selling or trafficking drugs is illegal. But arresting individuals who are carrying drugs for their own personal use isn’t effective.”

What we should be doing, according to de Villa, is reducing the harms associated with drug use and ensuring that all pathways to various treatment options are available, adding that the application to decriminalize drugs for personal use was developed in collaboration with a wide range of stakeholders, including people with lived experiences who use drugs, organizations who serve them, and the Toronto Police Service.

“The model is evidence-informed and aims to reduce harms associated with drug use, promote and provide pathways to treatment and does not sacrifice public safety. This is only ONE tool that is necessary to address the crises we are currently facing,” de Villa said, concluding that her goal is to cultivate a city where everyone can thrive.

The application has received a lot of opposition. Ontario Premier Doug Ford wants Toronto to drop the application, noting that “it’s turned into a nightmare”.

On Wednesday, Federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre urged Prime Minister Trudeau to reject Toronto’s application, adding that his dangerous policy cannot bring the same chaos, death, and destruction to more Canadian cities.

“If you allow Toronto to legalize hard drugs, as you did with British Columbia, the only outcome will be leaving the most vulnerable Canadians to a life of misery and despair,” Poilievre wrote in a letter posted to X.

B.C. is only one year into its three-year pilot project. The province’s exemption to decriminalize people who use drugs was first requested in November 2021, and enacted at the end of January 2023.

Premier David Eby said that the province is taking action to make sure police have the tools they need to ensure safe and comfortable communities for everyone as they expand treatment options.

“Keeping people safe is our highest priority. While we are caring and compassionate for those struggling with addiction, we do not accept street disorder that makes communities feel unsafe,” Eby said in a statement.

Article exclusive to STREETS OF TORONTO