Via The Washington Post: Toronto medical official calls for decriminalizing drugs as opioid overdoses skyrocket in Canada. Excerpt:
TORONTO — With opioid-related overdoses and deaths reaching record levels in Canada, the top medical official in Toronto is calling for the decriminalization of all drugs as part of a strategy to treat illicit drug use as a public health and social issue, not a criminal one.
In a report released Monday, Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s chief medical officer, urged the city’s board of health to pressure the federal government to eliminate legal penalties for the possession of drugs and to scale up “prevention, harm reduction and treatment services.”
The report also recommended assembling a task force “to explore options for the legal regulation of all drugs in Canada,” which she hopes would destroy an illegal drug market contaminated with fentanyl — a synthetic opioid 100 times more potent than morphine — and other drugs like it.
“When we criminalize people who take drugs, we inadvertently contribute to the overdose emergency,” de Villa said. “It pushes people into unsafe drug use practices and creates barriers for people to seek help.”
People with criminal records are also more likely to have difficulty finding housing and employment, a problem that carries negative health impacts that exacerbate the effects of drug use, she said.
The report comes as Canada battles a worsening opioid overdose crisis. Nearly 4,000 people died of opioid-related overdoses in Canada in 2017, according to the country’s public health agency, a 34 percent increase from the year before. Toronto accounted for 303 of those deaths, a figure that skyrocketed 63 percent from 2016.
In response, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has embraced a number of “harm reduction” measures, including supervised injection sites, prescription heroin programs for those with severe addictions and even vending machines that dispense prescription opioids.
But de Villa said Canada can do more and should learn from the experiences of other countries.
The report cites Portugal, which was the epicenter of a heroin epidemic in the 1990s and had the highest rate of drug-related AIDS cases in the European Union. It embarked on one of the most ambitious drug experiments in the world by decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of drugs in 2001 and treating drug use as a public health problem.
Under the law, drug trafficking remains a criminal offense. But anyone caught with less than a 10-day supply of any drug is sent to a Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction, a panel made up of a lawyer, a doctor and a social worker that decides on a specific penalty — usually a warning, a fine or a recommendation to seek treatment for addiction. No one is imprisoned, and possession is treated as an administrative violation.