Over the last five years, Toronto has gone from a city known for incremental conservatism to one at the forefront of progressive drug policy — moving from a war-on-drugs mentality to approving decriminalization of small amounts of illegal drug possession.
On Monday, following advice from Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s top doctor, the board of health voted unanimously to ask the federal government to exempt all city residents from criminal charges for possessing small amounts of illicit drugs like crack cocaine and heroin. Following in Vancouver’s footsteps, Toronto would be only the second Canadian city to seek that status.
The city’s recent evolution has been spurred by a mounting death toll from overdoses, successful cannabis legalization and a shifting police perspective.
For those on the ground who have seen the consequences of a drug poisoning crisis still plaguing the city with overdoses and deaths, decriminalization is the logical next step in a deliberate approach to tackling addiction as a health-care issue, while also changing the over-policing of Black and Indigenous people.
In 2005, after the HIV/AIDS crisis, activists came together to form the Toronto Drug Strategy Advisory Committee — an odd mix of community users, health and justice workers, police officers and city officials who all sat at the same table
What resulted was the Toronto Drug Strategy, a plan to increase harm reduction and treatment options, reduce stigma and prevent overdoses, standing in stark contrast to the prevailing approach of treating drug addiction as a crime.
“This was the era when everybody believed in the war on drugs,” said Coun. Gord Perks, who now chairs the drug strategy implementation panel.
Perks said the panel’s work was bolstered by Vancouver’s Insite, the first supervised injection clinic in North America.
Following its opening in 2003, the agency running Insite won a landmark legal battle against former prime minister Stephen Harper’s government when in 2011 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled there should be a clear pathway for such sites to operate with federal permission.
That opened the door for Toronto and others to push ahead with its own supervised injection services.
In 2016, city council signed off on a plan to open three supervised injection sites across downtown — in South Riverdale, Yonge-Dundas Square and Parkdale.
Coun. Joe Cressy, who chairs the city’s board of health, said people in the downtown core witnessing the overdose crisis in their backyard “knew the status quo was broken” and were ready to support a new solution.
“The overdose crisis has reached a point where it’s impossible to ignore,” he said of the mindset.
But the process to apply and get approval for supervised injection sites from the health minister under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, as well as securing provincial funding, was slow.
Though the news finally came in June 2017 that both legal status and initial funding had been approved, workers needed time to get the specific sites up and running — and a crisis of drug poisoning was catching up to them.
That summer, officials’ fears were realized: fentanyl, the deadly drug sweeping through B.C., had arrived in Toronto and overdoses related to fentanyl-laced drugs were climbing.
In August, community volunteers pitched a large, makeshift, khaki-coloured tent on the edge of Moss Park in the downtown east to try to stop their friends, colleagues and neighbours from dying.
The trained harm reduction workers supervised people injecting drugs they brought themselves, while offering training on how to use life-saving naloxone, a drug that can reverse the effects of an overdose.
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Despite the unsanctioned site not being allowed under federal law, the unofficial outpost in the park became a crucial life-saving service that was tacitly allowed to continue operating by police and city officials as deaths mounted.
On Nov. 8, 2017, Toronto Public Health itself opened the first legal supervised injection clinic with Ottawa’s permission at The Works building on Victoria Street downtown.
Just a year later, on Oct. 17, 2018, another big shift occurred when cannabis became legal in Canada and retail shops have now popped up all over the city.
Though there were fears about underage access to legal weed and that legalization would create heavy usage, early Statistics Canada data showed youth intake had not soared — just incremental increases in overall usage for the rest of the national population.
Research has long shown that a “war on drugs” that criminalizes those people — one that began across North America in the 1970s — has not had a significant impact on the supply or demand for drugs, a Toronto Public Health discussion paper published back in 2018 outlined.
According to that paper, criminalizing drug use has made drug users wary about accessing services and supports created criminal records that make it difficult to find work or shelter and forced risky behaviours that has led to infection, disease and overdose — while costing Canadian taxpayers some $2 billion annually to enforce.
Now there are nine supervised injection clinics from Parkdale to South Riverdale, operated by trained staff who supervise consumption and monitor clients for signs of overdose and infection, while offering in-house services and referrals for addiction treatment and other basic needs.
In a further development in the new approach to drug addiction, the federal government in August 2020 announced it was funding a $1.58-million pilot to provide a safe supply of opioid drugs through two of the supervised consumption sites in an attempt to combat the contamination of street drugs. There was little, if any, blow back.
There have been unlikely supporters of the progressive policies in play.
Mayor John Tory, in a statement to the Star, talked about knowing two families who lost young people to overdose in the past year and earlier witnessing a woman inject herself in the neck in the unsanctioned Moss Park tent.
“I had a strong urge to try to do more to help just from having met her.”
In the summer of 2020, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police — representing several forces responsible for policing drug users — shocked observers when it wholeheartedly agreed with decriminalization.
“Merely arresting individuals for simple possession of illicit drugs has proven to be ineffective,” said a report released by the association.
Last week, the city’s police chief Ramer wrote in support of Toronto Public Health’s decriminalization plan.
Before Monday’s vote, health board member Perks said he thinks of the people who didn’t live to see their drug strategy come to fruition, or the services offered that could have saved them.
Like Cindy Reardon, one of the community members on the original drug strategy committee, who died in 2017 before the first supervised injection site opened.
“Remarkable people, all of them,” Perks said.
Jennifer Pagliaro is a Toronto-based reporter covering city hall and municipal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @jpags
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