In one of the most important steps towards drug reform in Canada thus far, the Toronto Board of Health is urging the federal government to decriminalize all drug use across the nation.
The board announced its recommendation Monday, July 16, 2018, and called on Canadians to turn the moment into a cross-country movement. “The only way that federal laws are going to change is if we provoke that national conversation,” said Board Chair Joe Mihevc, a Toronto City Council member. “We will be the first to do it, but we can’t be the one and only.”
The endorsement of drug decriminalization came after the board was presented a report by Dr. Eileen de Villa, the medical officer of health for Canada’s largest city.
“What we are saying here is drug use has always been with us,” de Villa said. “Humans have always used drugs in one way, shape or form. The potential harms associated with any of these drugs is worsened when people are pushed into a position where they have to produce, obtain and consume those drugs illegally.”
The board will now be sending a letter of recommendation to Ottawa in the hopes that the call for countrywide drug decriminalization won’t fall on deaf ears.
The announcement in favor of decriminalization comes amid a catastrophic opioid epidemic that has affected both the United States and Canada. In 2017, there were 303 opioid related deaths in Toronto, a 63 percent increase compared with the previous year. Health Canada reported nearly 4,000 Canadians died from opioid overdoses in 2017.
First, it’s important to define exactly what decriminalization means. It’s not legalization, where the government suddenly allows massive poppy growers to make opium and sell it at a local store. Decriminalization is the elimination of criminal penalties for drug use and possession. The idea is to make drug use a public health issue with a focus on prevention and treatment, rather than a criminal issue that focuses on enforcement and criminal penalties.
Although the Toronto Board of Health is making a bold statement in favor of drug reform, its position on the issue is not unique. There are countries all over the world that have enacted decriminalization in myriad ways, but none more so than Portugal.
In 2001, Portugal decriminalized all drug use — drug-related deaths drastically decreased. Further, HIV infections among drug users has dropped significantly. Portugal now has the second-fewest overdose deaths in the European Union. The Washington Post reported in 2015 that for each million Portuguese adults, there are 3 drug overdose deaths.
The obvious answer as to why a public health approach towards drug possession is better than locking people up, is we now understand users need treatment, not criminal records to end drug abuse.
That does not mean Portuguese citizens are welcome to use drugs without any repercussions. If caught with a formerly illegal substance, Portuguese citizens can be ordered to pay fines or perform community service. These penalties are handed down by the country’s Commissions for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction — a government agency that now handles drug use instead of the penal system. The department encourages drug users to seek treatment, which is made available to them.
Further, the department will encourage the drug user to seek treatment that will be made available to them.
Health Canada Should Commit to Decriminalization
Despite the findings, Health Canada has been slow to adopt the idea of drug decriminalization. Prior to the announcement by the Toronto Board of Health, Health Canada spokesperson Maryse Durette told CTV News, “We are aware that decriminalization, as part of a comprehensive approach to substance use, seems to be working in places like Portugal, but more study would be required as the circumstances are very different in Canada.”
Regardless of the rather predictable statement, the recommendation made by the Toronto Board of Health is a significant endorsement for a smarter and more comprehensive approach toward drug reform. If there’s one lesson recent history has taught us, it’s that a “tough on crime” approach to drug use and public health simply isn’t working.