TORONTO – With opioid-related overdoses and deaths reaching record levels in Canada, the top medical official in Toronto is calling for the decriminalization of all drugs as part of a strategy to treat illicit drug use as a public health and social issue, not a criminal one.
In a report released Monday, Eileen de Villa, Toronto's chief medical officer, urged the city's board of health to pressure the federal government to eliminate legal penalties for the possession of drugs and to scale up "prevention, harm reduction and treatment services."
The report also recommended assembling a task force "to explore options for the legal regulation of all drugs in Canada," which she hopes would destroy an illegal drug market contaminated with fentanyl — a synthetic opioid 100 times more potent than morphine — and other drugs like it.
"When we criminalize people who take drugs, we inadvertently contribute to the overdose emergency," De Villa said. "It pushes people into unsafe drug use practices and creates barriers for people to seek help."
People with criminal records are also more likely to have difficulty finding housing and employment, a problem that carries negative health impacts that exacerbate the effects of drug use, she said.
Nearly 4,000 people died of opioid-related overdoses in Canada in 2017, said its public health agency, a 34 percent increase from the year before. In response, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government has embraced a number of "harm reduction" measures, including supervised injection sites and prescription heroin programs.
But De Villa said Canada can do more and should learn from the experiences of other countries. The report cites Portugal, which was the epicenter of a heroin epidemic in the 1990s and embarked on an ambitious experiment by decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of drugs in 2001 and treating drug use as a public health problem. Since then, there has been a sharp decline in drug overdose deaths.
But experts caution against drawing a causal link between decriminalization and the positive trends. Some note that decriminalization occurred alongside an increase in harm-reduction measures, methadone therapy and a guaranteed minimum income.