Toronto stands on the cusp of significant change as we move closer to installing a new mayor. In the past few years, against the backdrop of the drug poisoning crisis devasting this country, the issue of drug decriminalization has moved from the shadows of policy discussion to the centre stage of political debate. It is crucial that, as people in Toronto who care about our residents, we also recognize this issue as a matter of human rights and public health – not criminality.
Canada’s punitive approach towards drugs has resulted in egregious violations of human rights and amplified health-related harms, especially for Black, Indigenous, and racialized people. These policies have fueled stigma, preventable illness, and death – with 34,455 opioid toxicity deaths reported from January 2016 to September 2022. In Toronto alone, 591 people died from drug poisoning in 2021. These tragic deaths highlight the urgency of a policy overhaul.
Toronto Public Health’s recent proposal to decriminalize the possession of drugs for personal use is a positive step towards progressive drug policy. Their submission to Health Canada for an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, with the notable support of Toronto Police Chief Myron Demkiw and City Manager Paul Johnson, seeks to create an environment where people can access necessary services without the fear of criminal charges or prosecutions. It is an attempt to save lives amidst an escalating overdose crisis.
We, like many, have long advocated for evidence-based drug policy, and have seen how delays in implementing these reforms have cost human lives.
And our call for a comprehensive approach to decriminalization go beyond the removal of criminal sanctions for personal drug possession. We must decriminalize “necessity trafficking” — the selling and sharing of drugs for subsistence, to support personal drug use costs, or to provide a safe supply. As recent research has shown, and people who use drugs have long argued, police efforts to disrupt local drug markets by seizing drugs is associated with increased overdoses.
But in Toronto, not all mayoral candidates align with this perspective. Some candidates hold fast to a dangerous stance and have even criticized the city’s supervised consumption services, alleging that this approach facilitates drug use. These fears are not based on fact. It has been shown time and again that harm reduction and decriminalization do not fuel crime or increased drug use but instead enhance access to care and treatment, promoting the safety and well-being of our communities. Countless studies of supervised consumption services show they prevent accidental overdoses and reduce the spread of infections, such as HIV. Globally, over the last decade, there have been impressive reforms around the world, and a growing number of countries are decriminalizing drug possession, acknowledging that drug prohibition has been a drug policy failure. Other candidates have taken a more sensible approach based on evidence, supporting harm-reduction strategies and Toronto Public Health’s decriminalization proposal, along with plans to expand existing community health and safety initiatives. This is the Toronto we need and want.
Right now, there is an opportunity to shape Toronto’s future. This election is our chance to support leaders who prioritize progressive, rights-based drug policy.
Let’s strive for a Toronto that prioritizes facts over rhetoric, rights over punishment, and health over criminalization. By choosing human rights, we can build a modern and responsible drug control framework based on science and evidence that nurtures a safer and healthier city for all.