Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health is recommending that the federal government immediately decriminalize all recreational drugs.

The medical officer is also calling on the federal government to create a task force to “explore options for the legal regulation of all drugs in Canada, based on a public health approach.” Dr. Eileen de Villa says this task force should be comprised of people who use drugs as well as policy, research and program experts.

In a news release issued Monday, de Villa said that too many people are dying due to drug overdoses.

"These preventable deaths are affecting our family members, friends and colleagues, and we must do more," she said. "The criminalization of people who take drugs is contributing to the overdose emergency because it forces people into unsafe drug use practices and creates barriers to seeking help. This is why I am calling on the federal government to take urgent action."

Toronto Public Health held a number of interviews with people who use drugs at community agencies across the city. They also facilitated an online survey and a general public survey on drug policies in Canada.

In the online survey, 78 per cent of respondents said that Canada’s current approach to drugs is not working. This number was similar to the general public survey, which showed that 74 percent of respondents wanted a change in the government’s approach to drugs.

Many of the participants spoke about eliminating the negative stigma associated with drug use and the need to provide prevention, harm reduction and treatment services.

"Some people who use drugs are more impacted by our drug laws than others, including people who are homeless or living in poverty, people with mental health and substance use issues and youth. We need to scale up prevention, harm reduction and treatment services to ensure we can provide the supports that people require," de Villa said.

The report, which will be considered at the July 16 Board of Health meeting, explains that people who use illegal drugs are judged more harshly than those who use other drugs like alcohol.

“People from all walks of life have used alcohol and other drugs throughout history, for many reasons,” the report says. “Most substance use does not harm the individual or anyone else. Some people can 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.”

The report suggests the legal status of drugs in Canada was not based on a scientific assessment of their potential for harm and that drug criminalization forces people into unsafe spaces and high-risk behaviours.

A public health approach to drug policy would be based on scientific evidence and a commitment to social justice and human rights, the report says.

The production and sale of drugs would still be illegal under the medical officer’s recommendations.

According to the Office of the Chief Coroner for Ontario, there were 303 opioid overdose deaths in Toronto last year. This is a 63 per cent increase from the number of deaths in 2016.

Data provided by Toronto Public Health shows that between Jan. 1, 2018 and June 25, 2018, there have been 68 overdose-related deaths in Toronto.