With drug-related deaths reaching record highs in Toronto, ongoing public consultations in the city are expected to procure a decriminalization request to Health Canada later this fall. Toronto City Council intends to pressure the federal government to decriminalize the possession of illicit drugs for personal use within the provincial capital.

“In Toronto, deaths involving all substances, including opioids, have increased to record highs,” Dr. Eileen de Villa said in a statement. “The situation remains urgent and more action is needed to respond.” Toronto Public Health confirmed 521 opioid overdose deaths in the city last year, marking a 78 percent increase from fatalities recorded in 2019, it said.

City data found that in the first three months of 2021, paramedics responded to 1,173 suspected opioid overdose calls, including 93 involving a death, reported City News. That is more than double the number of calls involving a death during the same period in 2020.

Health Canada did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the matter.

The decriminalization request seeks an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act for personal drug use in the city. One of the recommendations included urging the federal government to consider bolstering prevention, harm reduction and treatment services in addition to decriminalizing the possession of all drugs for personal use.

Coun. Joe Cressy, chair of the Toronto Board of Health, said city staff are “currently consulting on the details of what an exemption would look like” on the impacts of decriminalizing drugs. “We are dealing with a public health crisis,” he said. “And the way to address it is with a health response.”

A 2016 study found that one in ten drug toxicity deaths among Ontario adults occurred within one year of release from provincial incarceration between 2006 and 2013. In a release, Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health recently stated that making criminals out of substance users is “ineffective and counterproductive.”

Cressy added: “Decriminalization is a key element in a series of measures needed to tackle the overdose crisis, alongside treatments, increased harm reduction services and a safer supply. It is a critical piece, and I think that the chorus of experts, from law enforcement to healthcare, who are calling for such action nationally, is only growing because people continue to die from preventable deaths.”

Cressy said his local health board also championed national decriminalization every year since 2018. “A nationwide framework, something that CAMH has called for, that Toronto’s Board of Health has long called for, could and should be done immediately,” he concluded.