HIV Legal Network comment on report to Toronto Board of Health report

This statement can be attributed to the HIV Legal Network.

June 8, 2021 As Toronto continues to experience unprecedented numbers of overdose deaths, each new month grimly surpassing records set in the last, we join with 47 other Toronto-based civil society organizations (see below) and five former Toronto mayors to call for urgent action to decriminalize simple drug possession within city limits.

Toronto can achieve this by requesting an exemption from federal drug laws from the federal Minister of Health. And there is no time to waste: from May 2-6 alone, Toronto Paramedic Services responded to 13 fatal suspected opioid-related overdose calls, and the numbers keep climbing.

In response to this ongoing public health crisis, the Toronto Board of Health is considering a report released yesterday from Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health with two important recommendations aimed at decriminalizing simple drug possession. First, the report reiterates previous calls to the federal Minister of Health to use her authority under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) to exempt people from prosecution for drug possession for personal use. Second, it recommends that the Toronto Medical Officer of Health convene and lead a working group guided by the expertise of people with lived experience of drug use, as well as other harm reduction and drug policy experts, as a step toward requesting such an exemption, instead of continuing to criminalize simple drug possession.

This report, which will be considered by the Toronto Board of Health at their meeting next Monday, June 14, is in keeping with calls to decriminalize from civil society and former Board resolutions. We are pleased to see this leadership and urge the Board not to delay in taking concrete, immediate action to develop and submit an official request for an exemption.

In addition to the civil society organizations demanding change, former mayors David Crombie, John Sewell, Art Eggleton, Barbara Hall, and David Miller have all endorsed a call for Toronto to seek a federal exemption, demonstrating their ongoing commitment to the city and their understanding that decriminalization is key to reducing the alarmingly high rates of drug poisoning deaths.

Collectively, we are asking Toronto to:

  • Request the federal health minister to issue an exemption under section 56 of the CDSA to effectively decriminalize simple drug possession in our city; and
  • Consult with people who use drugs, drug policy and human rights advocates, and public health researchers to determine a legal framework for this exemption request that will meaningfully implement decriminalization.

Finally, we note that the patchwork approach to decriminalization that is emerging represents a failure of federal leadership. Vancouver has already submitted a formal exemption request and is awaiting a response from the Government of Canada. The Province of British Columbia has stated its interest. And now Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health is recommending a Toronto exemption request. But if Canada were to show leadership and issue a blanket exemption to decriminalize simple possession across the country, this fractured, piecemeal process could be avoided. Until that time, cities across Canada cannot wait for the federal government to act.

We urge the Board of Health to approve this recommendation from Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health and push forward with decriminalization today. Time to act, Toronto: decriminalize now.

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Quotes from former Mayors of Toronto:

“It is heartbreaking to see the damage left in the wake of the overdose crisis. It’s also unjust to see how racialized people are targeted by the current drug laws. The time is now — we must recognize this as a public health and not a criminal issue.” Art Eggleton, former Mayor of Toronto and retired Canadian Senator

“I’ve been a youth worker, a lawyer practicing criminal law, Mayor of Toronto, and a human rights commissioner. During my career, I have seen no evidence that criminalizing drug use has ever been of any benefit. Toronto needs a health and human rights-based approach.” Barbara Hall, former Mayor of Toronto

Quote from the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario:

“People who struggle with substance use are no different from those who suffer with cancer or any other health condition. For nurses, saving people from harm and ameliorating suffering is an imperative. For this reason, decriminalizing personal possession of drugs must be part and parcel of any harm reduction strategy because it decreases stigma and opens the door to hope, help and health.” Dr. Doris Grinspun, CEO, Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario

Download our primer, which outlines why and how provincial and municipal governments should request such an exemption: 

About the HIV Legal Network

The HIV Legal Network (, formerly the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, promotes the human rights of people living with, at risk of or affected by HIV or AIDS, through research and analysis, litigation and other advocacy, public education, and community mobilization.



Janet Butler-McPhee, Director of Communications and Advocacy

HIV Legal Network

Telephone: +1 647-295-0861



Call to Action Signatories List

2-Spirited People of the 1st Nations

Action Hepatitis Canada

Addictions and Mental Health Ontario


AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT)

Alliance for Healthier Communities

Breakaway Community Services

Butterfly (Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network)

Canadian Association of Nurses in HIV/AIDS Care (CANAC/ACIIS)

Canadian Lawyers for International Human Rights (CLAIHR)


Centre on Drug Policy Evaluation

Davenport Perth Neighbourhood and Community Health Centre

East End Community Health Centre

Elizabeth Fry Toronto

Families for Addiction Recovery

Flemingdon Health Centre

Fred Victor

Heart to Heart First Aid CPR Services Inc

HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic (Ontario)

HIV Legal Network

Inner City Family Health Team

John Howard Society of Toronto

Lance Krasman Centre for Community Mental Health

Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP)

M & M International Inc.

Maggie’s Toronto Sex Workers Action Project

No Pride in Policing Coalition

PARC (The Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre)

Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre

PASAN (Prisoners HIV/AIDS Support Action Network)

Recovery Care

Regent Park Community Health Centre

Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario

Ron Rosenes Consulting

Shining Waters Regional Council, United Church of Canada


South Riverdale Community Health Centre

Street Health

The 519

The Ryerson Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy

The TRIP! Project

Toronto Harm Reduction Alliance (THRA)

Toronto Overdose Prevention Society

Vibrant Healthcare Alliance

Women & HIV/AIDS initiative (WHAI)

Women’s Health in Women’s Hands Community Health Centre

Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF)