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Political fireworks about drug decriminalization leave Toronto request in limbo

A request by Canada’s biggest city to move forward on drug decriminalization is in limbo, facing significant provincial opposition and renewed political debate prompted by a partial rollback of B.C.’s existing policy.

Toronto put forward a request to the federal government in 2022, and provided additional information in 2023, Dr. Eileen de Villa, the city’s medical officer of health, said in an interview on Rosemary Barton Live that aired Sunday.

“Fundamentally, what that’s about is recognizing that addiction is, at its core, a health issue not a criminal issue,” she told CBC chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton.

The issue of drug decriminalization, already a tense political debate across the country, was reignited this week when B.C. announced it was looking to roll back part of an exemption that decriminalized possessing small amounts of some drugs.

B.C. now hopes to recriminalize the use of drugs in public places.

“We’re taking action to make sure police have the tools they need to ensure safe and comfortable communities for everyone as we expand treatment options so people can stay alive and get better,” B.C. Premier David Eby said this week.

Federal Conservatives have pointed to the B.C. request as a sign that drug decriminalization has failed, with leader Pierre Poilievre calling the policy “wacko.”

B.C.’s drug decriminalization request was in support of a Vancouver municipal application, which had previously been sent by the city to the federal government.

Vancouver is not the only municipality to have weighed the benefits of decriminalization: Montreal’s public health director expressed support for it in 2022, the same year Toronto made its first request.

WATCH | Toronto medical officer of health on drug decriminalization:

Toronto medical officer sees drug decriminalization as ‘health issue,’ despite Ford’s opposition

1 day ago

Duration 7:52

CBC chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton speaks with Toronto’s medical officer of health, Dr. Eileen de Villa, about the city’s application to decriminalize drugs for personal use, which the Ontario government has refused to support.

Municipal requests haven’t gone far

Toronto’s request goes further than what B.C. has allowed. It does not include a threshold for the amount of drugs that would be permitted, and it also includes protections for minors. The B.C. exemption applies only to adults.

It’s unclear where the Toronto request goes from here.

Asked about the issue at an event in Hamilton on Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said “the City of Toronto has no active application right now, so there’s nothing to consider.”

WATCH | The federal political debate over drug decriminalization:

At Issue | Poilievre calls Trudeau’s drug policies ‘wacko’

4 days ago

Duration 22:52

At Issue this week: Pierre Poilievre gets booted from the House of Commons after calling Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his support for B.C.’s drug decriminalization ‘wacko’ and hints he’ll use the notwithstanding clause to get tough on crime if he becomes prime minister. Plus, are the government’s climate policies working?

Trudeau also suggested that provincial approval or support was needed for this kind of exemption.

“We knew that for any sort of pilot project to go forward … the wraparound supports, the public safety implications required, that we couldn’t just deal with the Vancouver application, we needed to work with the province on that,” he said.

The Ontario government has not been supportive of Toronto’s request. Ontario Premier Doug Ford this week called on Toronto to drop its application and promised to fight against it.

“I will fight this tooth and nail. This is the wrong way to go. It’s proven,” Ford said.

In an interview with CP24 on Friday, Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow said decriminalization was only part of the solution to the problem of addictions, and that other services were needed.

“I’d rather focus on something practical. House these folks, get them into a treatment program,” Chow said.

A man in a blue suit stands at a podium and motions with his hand as he speaks into a microphone.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford has said he will not support Toronto’s bid to move forward on drug decriminalization. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

De Villa said the ongoing housing crisis in Canada has led to a worsening of the addictions crisis. She said the focus of decriminalization should be part of a fulsome approach to addiction that includes prevention and treatment.

“It’s actually not about saying that public use is OK. Nor is it about saying selling or trafficking drugs is OK. It’s actually about treating addiction as a health issue,” she said.

But de Villa acknowledged that, ultimately, the fate of the Toronto request and the wider decriminalization policy was out of her hands.

“We are trying to provide the best possible advice with the best possible evidence — but at the end of the day the policy decisions rest with the decision-makers, who are the elected officials.”

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