Op-ed: City ignoring overdose crisis as death toll mounts

The Board of Health has recommended decriminalizing drug possession to help fight the epidemic, but council has been mum on the issue

For the past year, the world has been preoccupied with numbers, watching COVID-19 case counts rise and fall and analyzing the unrelenting toll of the pandemic.

Some public health crises carry more weight than others. Some feel more urgent, at least politically speaking, while others don’t demand the same decisive action to save lives.

On the frontlines of the opioid overdose crisis in Toronto, for example, the effects of an ever more toxic drug supply have forced a new, awful high: a record number of fatal overdose calls attended by paramedics.

In December 2020, there were 34 deaths, the highest since Toronto began tracking these tragic numbers. The numbers for January are expected to be just as grim.

But Canada’s largest city seems to have adopted a “wait and see” attitude when it comes to efforts to address the problem.

From January 2016 to June 2020 the Government of Canada recorded more than 17,500 fatal overdoses nationwide. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the overdose crisis. With reduced access to health and social services, and increased drug toxicity due to pandemic-related disruptions to the unregulated market, measures that were adopted to manage the pandemic erected new barriers for people who use drugs.

While the toxic drug supply is largely responsible for these dire numbers, the illegal market is driven by Canada’s long-standing policy of criminalizing drugs and the people who use them. The associated stigma, discrimination, shame, and blame pushes some people to use their drugs in isolation, compromising their ability to take vital safety precautions and seeking essential health care and social supports.

We’ve seen the same pattern with other epidemics, like HIV and hepatitis C.

This past week, the Government of Canada showed some willingness to move the needle on drug policy with Bill C-22, which removes mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offences but unfortunately stops short of decriminalizing drugs.

We are seeing more bravery on drug policy reform on the part of some political leaders. The City of Vancouver is now in active discussions with Health Canada to seek a federal exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act that could decriminalize personal drug possession within city limits. British Columbia is poised to follow suit to request a similar exemption. Other municipalities across Canada, including Montreal, Victoria, and Kamloops, have also adopted motions in support of decriminalizing personal drug possession.

Toronto’s Board of Health has also recommended decriminalizing simple drug possession to fight the overdose crisis, but the city itself has been decidedly mum on this issue as the body count rises.

Mayor John Tory has followed the advice of public health experts in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, but not when it comes to the public health challenge posed by the overdose crisis.

Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa, along with numerous other public health leaders and the city’s own Board of Health, have recognized the need to decriminalize simple drug possession.

Like Vancouver and B.C., Toronto’s Board of Health has urged the federal government to grant Toronto an exemption. Removing the threat of criminalization would bring much-needed and long-overdue relief to people struggling with twin public health crises. Delaying will only mean the unconscionable loss of more lives in Toronto, more people unjustly saddled with criminal charges, and more public funds wasted on pursuing a harmful public policy.

Janet Butler-McPhee is director of communications and advocacy and Sandra Ka Hon Chu is the director of research and advocacy for the HIV Legal Network.


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