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Ford thanks Ottawa as minister cites 'deep concerns' over Toronto's decriminalization

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Ontario Premier Doug Ford is thanking the federal government for rejecting Toronto's long-stalled pitch to decriminalize the possession of illegal drugs.

The premier expressed that gratitude after the federal addictions minister cited "deep concerns" about the proposal and said the city's public-health agency declined to make crucial changes.

Earlier this month, Saks told reporters that Toronto Public Health's application was "dormant," then announced its denial days later, on a Friday evening before a long weekend.

That came after she faced weeks of growing political pressure to abandon support for the policy.

The minister now says the proposal did not include age restrictions or limits on the amount of drugs a person could have in their possession — and that the agency said in early May it was not open to changing that.

As of Friday afternoon, a spokesperson for Toronto Public Health declined to answer questions about the minister's description of her objections or the timeline of events.

Dane Griffiths said the agency was informed of Ottawa's decision to reject its application on May 17, the same day it was announced publicly.

In a statement, he said decriminalization is but one "evidence-informed policy tool to help remove barriers to care."

"I had deep concerns with the proposal," Saks told The Canadian Press in an interview Thursday.

The city first submitted its decriminalization request in January 2022 and updated it in 2023, which is when it requested it to apply to minors, noting how many minors between ages 12 to 17 were dying from drug overdoses.

"Health Canada presented Toronto Public Health with a series of questions meant to address some of the concerns raised about the proposal," Saks said.

Not only did Toronto's application seek to decriminalize personal possession of "all" controlled drugs and substances, but Saks said it did not set limits on how much one person was allowed to possess.

"Having that threshold matters because it's about personal use," the minister said.

"As opposed to trafficking, which falls clearly under … the lens of enforcement, and Toronto didn't set that threshold."

"The application from Toronto Public Health also did not include age restrictions, unlike a similar pilot project in British Columbia," she said.

"We didn't have confidence in it, particularly when it came to young people."

A recent request from British Columbia to scale back a similar pilot project in that province threw the fate of Toronto's application into question.

More confusion was piled onto the matter when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dismissed the Toronto Public Health's application as not being active.

On May 7, Saks told reporters that its application was "dormant" and that nothing had come across her desk.

She said on Thursday that officials had heard nothing from Toronto Public Health for months, but then at the beginning of May, the agency informed Health Canada they would not amend the proposal.

On May 17, the news release announcing the rejection of the proposal said it failed to "adequately protect public health and maintain public safety."

It also cited the lack of support from the Ontario government, after Ford and his ministers repeatedly vowed to fight Toronto's application.

During a news conference Friday, the premier thanked the federal government for its decision, saying it's appropriate for the province to retain jurisdiction over the matter.

"As long as I'm premier," Ford said, "we're never going to decriminalize hard-core drugs."

Ontario Premier Doug Ford makes an announcement at a gas station saying the province is speeding up the expansion of alcohol sales, in Toronto on Friday, May 24, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov

The rejection comes after Ottawa agreed to scale back the pilot project in B.C.

That province became the first jurisdiction in Canada to pilot the decriminalization of personal drug possession in early 2023, as a way to combat the toxic drug supply and overdose crisis by destigmatizing drug use.

It was limited to certain illegal substances such as heroin, fentanyl, cocaine and methamphetamine.

In April, the Liberals received an urgent request from the provincial NDP government to recriminalize the use of drugs in public spaces. Their use in private spaces is still legal.

The change came in response to concerns from police and nurses, as well as backlash from the public and federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, who blamed decriminalization for fueling addictions and overdose deaths.

"The Toronto proposal cannot be compared apples to apples with the model used out West," Saks said, "where there are age limits and only certain drugs have been decriminalized."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 24, 2024

With files from Jordan Omstead and Liam Casey

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