Canada turns down plan to decriminalize hard drugs

The Canadian government has turned down Toronto’s request to decriminalize the small-scale possession of hard drugs, citing public safety concerns and lack of political backing. Toronto’s request, made in 2022 to address the city’s overdose crisis, follows a recent rollback of a similar decriminalization policy in British Columbia (BC). This marks another setback for the movement aiming to relax drug laws to better support users.

Ya’ara Saks, Canada’s mental health and addictions minister, rejected Toronto’s proposal, stating it failed to ensure public health and safety. Health Canada echoed concerns about insufficient support from key stakeholders, including Ontario province. Last week, Ontario officials firmly opposed decriminalization, arguing it would increase crime and public drug use without aiding those with addictions. Ontario’s Health Minister Sylvia Jones stated that the policy would exacerbate public issues without offering meaningful support.

Toronto’s request had backing from the Toronto Police Service and local public health experts. In a letter to former mental health minister Carolyn Bennett, Toronto’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Eileen de Villa and Police Chief Myron Demkiw acknowledged the proposed change as significant but argued that a Toronto-specific model of decriminalization could improve health outcomes. They highlighted that criminalizing personal drug possession leads to discrimination and stigma, hindering those with addictions from accessing employment and housing.

North America continues to struggle with a severe opioid crisis. Over 100,000 people died from drug overdoses in the US last year, and Canada has seen at least 42,000 opioid overdose deaths since 2016.

BC’s pilot decriminalization program, launched in January 2023 and intended to run until 2026, permitted adults to possess up to 2.5 grams of certain drugs without arrest, except near schools and airports. However, following political and public backlash over increased public disorder and drug use, BC announced in April that it would again make illicit drug use in all public spaces illegal.

Similarly, the US state of Oregon reversed its 2020 decriminalization policy after continued overdose spikes and growing public frustration over open drug use.

These developments reflect the complex and contentious nature of drug policy reform in North America, where the balance between public health initiatives and safety concerns remains a significant challenge.

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