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Toronto mayor responds to criticism on city’s request to decriminalize certain drugs

Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow is responding to criticism over Toronto‘s efforts to decriminalize drugs in the wake of the opioid crisis, saying it misses a much more urgent need.

“People are going through the cycle and they’re not getting anywhere,” Chow said during a sitdown interview on CP24 Breakfast Friday, referring to people who are arrested for drug possession before being released with no place to go.

She said many of the people living on the streets of Toronto have addiction issues that can’t properly be resolved without housing.

“On streets, in libraries, in community centres, in the subways are people desperately needing help, and we literally don’t have enough shelters for them. We’re turning away 200 plus people per night,” Chow said. “So I’d rather focus on something practical; House these folks, get them into a treatment program.”

Earlier this week, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre sent a letter to the federal government asking it to deny Toronto’s request to decriminalize simple possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use.

Toronto’s medical officer of health Eileen de Villa defended the city’s request in a statement, saying that decriminalization is “fundamentally recognizing that addiction is a health issue”– and said decriminalization is not the same as legalization.

She said the city urgently needs more publicly-funded treatment programs.

Chow echoed that sentiment Friday, but said the debate misses the point.

“You know, whether (federal officials) say yes or no at this point, we still don’t have the treatment programs,” Chow said. “And we are seeing the impact of it. You see it on the street, right? There are some people that are not well.”

She said “decriminalization really is the end of the conversation” rather than the start and said “on-the-ground, practical solutions” like housing are where she’d rather focus her energy when it comes to the opioid crisis.

The renewed debate comes as British Columbia asks the federal government to walk back some parts of an exemption it was granted as part of a pilot project in 2023.

Toronto has asked for a similar exemption to allow simple possession of small amounts of hard drugs, but it is still being considered by the federal government.

– With files from Katherine DeClerq

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