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Toronto drug decriminalization request still under review as B.C. exemption program rolls out


More than a year after it was first submitted, Toronto’s request for the decriminalization of personal possession drugs is still being reviewed by Health Canada.

The federal authority confirmed Tuesday that it continues to assess the city’s application “to ensure both public health and public safety considerations are included.”

Toronto’s medical officer of health, the city manager, and the chief of police requested the exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act in January 2022, which would allow for the possession of illicit drugs for personal use in Toronto.

The request is similar to a program that took effect in British Columbia Tuesday, where substance users caught with up to 2.5 grams of cocaine, methamphetamine, MDMA, and opioids won’t face arrest or fines. Instead, police offers will connect users to social services and other supports as the province battles an overdose crisis.

In the submission to Health Canada, Toronto officials requested that all illicit drugs be decriminalized for personal possession, without outlining what quantity would constitute personal use.

“We’ve come to the societal recognition that putting people in jail for having a small amount of drugs for their personal use has not actually worked,” said Gillian Kolla, postdoctoral fellow of the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research. “It’s been a very costly failure to society. It costs a lot of money to put people in jail for this, and it doesn’t give them access to treatment or social services.”

Decriminalization alone won’t solve Toronto’s drug crisis, said Robert Schwartz, senior scientist with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. But it would help achieve harm reduction.

“It’s a very small baby step,” Schwartz said. “People who are criminalized have criminal records. It means they can’t rent a place because people check criminal records. It means they can’t get employment because employers check criminal records. And so it means that these people are being at risk of being pushed into a downward spiral and being in life-threatening situations.”

“I would hope that we could move from this criminal justice model more to this health outcomes model, where we see individuals are less stigmatized for carrying small amounts for personal use,” University of Toronto Pharmacology professor told CTV News Toronto. “They’d be more willing to reach out for assistance to access health care to call if someone is overdosing.”

Toronto Public Health said Tuesday it had been in ongoing talks with Health Canada officials on the decriminalization request, and planned to discuss its initial submission with community members.

Toronto health officials would be monitoring the rollout of the exemption program in British Columbia, a spokesperson said, and would be presenting a follow-up submission to Health Canada later this year. Top Stories

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