By Jake Cardinal, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
(ANNews) – Earlier this month, the city of Toronto voted to seek permission from the federal government to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs as the opioid crisis continues to sweep across North America.
The exemption from the feds would allow Toronto citizens to carry small amounts of drugs for recreational use — including: heroin, fentanyl, and cocaine — without risk of obtaining a criminal record.
The city’s chief medical officer, Dr. Eileen de Villa, believes that a federal exemption is needed to better treat addiction.
“Decriminalization will reduce the harms associated with drug use and … help to remove barriers that people who use drugs tell us they experience when accessing health and human services,” she said.
“The current approaches to drug policy and regulation are not working.”
Last year, Toronto witnessed 531 opioid overdose deaths — which was an 81 percent increase since 2019.
Toronto Mayor John Tory also believes that there needs to be a change in the way the city treats drug addiction, saying that “the status quo is not working.”
”In cities all across this country, literally hundreds of people are dying, often alone and in alleys where they shouldn’t be,” he said.
“And they haven’t (got) a legal problem, not a moral problem. They have a health problem.”
The decision to seek decriminalization of small drug possessions in Toronto comes after Vancouver and the entire province of B.C. asked for a similar exemption from Health Canada under Section 56 (1) of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act earlier this year.
In the first seven months of 2021, B.C. recorded 1,204 drug-related fatalities – 201 in October alone.
The situation has become so dire in B.C and Vancouver, that drug toxicity is now the leading cause of death for those aged 19-39, according the B.C Coroners Service.
However, the opioid crisis is not isolated to B.C. and Toronto, as a total of 6,945 opioid overdoses were reported in the Canada between April 2020 to March 2021 — which is an 88 percent increase from the same time period before the pandemic.
The federal government has said that they are “seriously considering” the exemption requests, but are also looking at other options such as safe opioid supplies, more safe injection sites, and increased counselling services.
However, the feds did introduce a new bill in the House of Commons earlier this month that aims to repeal mandatory minimum penalties for drug offences.
Justice Minister David Lametti believes that many who are being thrown in jail are first-time offenders or of low-risk — with the amount of incarcerated individuals being disproportionally over-represented by Indigenous and Black populations.
There were over 70,000 drug offences in 2019, according to Statistics Canada data.
Approximately 25 percent of the offences were marijuana-related, 20 percent were cocaine-related, and there were also over 10,000 arrests made for methamphetamine possession.