It was a problem that only got worse during the pandemic.
With overdose deaths increasing 40% this year, Toronto’s Board of Health on Monday unanimously voted to give the nod to petitioning the federal government to decriminalize possession of small amounts of illegal drugs meant for personal use.
“This past June, we were directed to convene a working group to seek input on this alternate approach to drug criminalization in Toronto,” said Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s medical officer of health.
“We’ve moved forward on work on decriminalization as the drug poisoning crisis continues to worsen here in Toronto.”
The report before the board seeks exemptions to the Controlled Substances and Drug Act (CDSA) to decriminalize what’s known under the law as “simple possession” of drugs within city limits.
The call is the second such request made to Health Canada, following Vancouver’s decision to do the same thing last month.
Last year, Toronto Public Health presented a report supporting decriminalization, citing the COVID-19 pandemic as a factor in the spike in overdose deaths.
Toronto Police Chief James Ramer wrote a letter of support, admitting current drug intervention methods do not support efforts to create safe communities or to meet the needs of addicts.
Toronto’s paramedics were dispatched to 60 overdose calls on Dec. 1 — the single-highest day since 2017, according to de Villa. They have responded to more than 5,000 drug overdoses in the first 10 months of 2021.
Common contaminants found in recreational drugs include nitazene opioids — with potencies approaching 10 times stronger than fentanyl — and benzodiazepines, which can increase opioid overdose risks.
A record number of opioid deaths — 531 — were recorded in 2020, compared to 293 in 2019, 300 in 2018, and 308 in 2017, according to information provided to the board.