Peter Chow: Epiphany

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Instead of banning plastic straws or proceeding with a $8.4 million Downtown Plaza that nobody really wants, Sault Ste Marie could follow the lead of other Ontario cities in applying for establishment of a Supervised Drug Consumption Site.

 

Even though it is low on the city’s list of priorities.

That Thunder Bay, Timmins and Sudbury have or are in the process of doing this should shame City Council into following suit, or at least going through the motions, even pretending to care and doing the paperwork to apply for the exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act for inside such facilities.

The application form is easily accessed online:

www.canada.ca/en/health-canada

Apply to run a supervised consumption site – Canada.ca
Step 1. Overview . In Canada, possession of controlled substances is prohibited under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. To operate a supervised consumption site (SCS) for medical purposes in Canada, an exemption under section 56.1 of the Act is necessary.
www.canada.ca

Supervised Drug Consumption Sites in Ontario include 10 in Toronto, Guelph, Hamilton, Kingston, London, 4 in Ottawa, St. Catherines, Thunder Bay and planned facilities in aforementioned Sudbury and Timmins.

 

Sault Ste Marie City Council could then have a real epiphany and follow the lead of Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Eileen de Villa, who wants to decriminalize possession of small amounts of illegal drugs in the city in an effort to combat the opioid overdose crisis.

She’s got support from the Toronto police chief.

A report from Dr. Eileen de Villa to the city’s board of health recommends asking the federal government to permit simple possession of all drugs, asking for an exemption to a section under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act that would apply only to those living in the city.

She is recommending the city make the request by the end of the year.

It is also asking the province to increase funding to help expand harm reduction services, increase overdose outreach beyond homeless shelters to parks and drop-ins, and deliver mobile drug consumption services outside the downtown area.

“The current approach to the drug poisoning crisis is not working and we continue to see tragic outcomes that are preventable,” de Villa said in a statement.

“This is why we are aligned with other jurisdictions and recommending decriminalizing the possession of all drugs for personal use and connecting all people who use drugs with health and social supports.”

Toronto Police Chief James Ramer said in a letter to de Villa that the Toronto Police force supports a new approach to drug decriminalization.

“We agree that the current approach to managing drug use does not support safe communities or advance the health of people who use drugs,” Ramer wrote.

“Decriminalization of the simple possession of all drugs — combined with the scale-up of prevention, harm reduction, and treatment services — is a more effective way to address the public health and public safety harms associated with substance use.”

Decriminalization would remove criminal sanctions against possession of all drugs for personal use.

Decriminalization does not mean legalization.

Legalization of cannabis, for example, is the process of removing all legal prohibitions against it, making it available to the adult general population for purchase and use at will, similar to tobacco and alcohol.

Last year, the head of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP)  calling for the decriminalization of simple possession of illicit drugs.

“Arresting individuals for simple possession of illicit drugs has proven to be ineffective,” Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer, who heads the CACP, said.

“It does not save lives.”

Palmer says the police chiefs recommend the “current enforcement-based approach for possession be replaced with a health-care approach that diverts people from the criminal justice system.”

In European countries such as Portugal, the Netherlands and Norway, anyone caught with less than a 10-day supply of any drug—including heroin and cocaine—is typically sent to a local commission, usually consisting of a doctor, lawyer and social worker, where they learn about treatment and available medical services.

No distinction is made between “hard” or “soft” drugs.

In these countries, illegal drug use by teenagers declined, the rate of HIV infections and Hepatitis C among drug users dropped, and deaths related to heroin and opiates decreased sharply.

Eliminating the threat of criminal penalties—and along with it, a great deal of stigma— has made it easier for people to seek treatment.

The number of people in drug treatment increased by over 60%, nearly three-quarters of them on opioid-substitution therapy.

Toronto police Chief James Ramer said a decriminalization model should also include a Safe Supply of Drugs, something health-care workers have demanded for years.

This year, B.C. became the first province in Canada to permanently provide access to a safe drug supply, in an effort to reduce a staggering number of overdose deaths — a groundbreaking step that is being hailed as life-saving but also criticized for taking so long to achieve and not going far enough.

Initial implementation of this policy will focus on ensuring access to a priority list of opioid medications with supply of cocaine and stimulants to follow at a later date.

Dr. Bonnie Henry, the B.C. Provincial Health Officer said, “Reducing harm for people who use drugs is the right thing to do.”

Dr. Eileen de Villa is asking for an exemption to a section under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act that would apply only to those living in the city.

She is recommending that Toronto make the request by the end of the year.

The report says there were 531 opioid toxicity deaths in 2020 in Toronto, which is an 81% increase from 2019.

Toronto, like the rest of the province, is in the midst of a worsening deadly opioid crisis, which has been exacerbated significantly during the pandemic.

There have been 351 deaths, according to paramedic data in that time frame, up 53% from the same period the year prior.

De Villa said the increase is due to multiple factors, including the “toxic nature of the unregulated drug supply, as well as pandemic-related service reductions and physical distancing requirements.”

Vancouver has made the same decriminalization request to Health Canada, de Villa noted.

Ontario’s Big City Mayors, a group representing the leaders of populous municipalities, has also urged the move in recent months.

Jeff Lehman, the mayor of Barrie, Ont., and the chair of the mayors group, said the province and the federal government have to treat the problem as a public health one, not a criminal matter.

“We’ve got a federal government that sounds like they’re interested,” Lehman said in a recent interview.

“It may be a little tougher to convince the Ontario Ford government because so far they’ve had a little bit more of an enforcement and less of a public health approach. And we’re going to need to push there to get them to change that.”

He said they can’t really decriminalize drugs without also offering more treatment capacity.

“We could make the situation worse, so that’s where that’s where the province really comes in,” Lehman said.

He said the time has come to work on the opioid epidemic, especially given how familiar Ontarians have become with the importance of public health.

“We have another epidemic in a way, but it’s not spread by a virus,” Lehman said.

“It’s spread by drug use, but it’s an epidemic that’s taking almost as many lives and, just like COVID, we need to take a public health approach and maybe that’s why I hear more understanding and support for this approach generally.”

Ontario’s Ministry of Health said it will review recommendations from municipalities and is committed to combatting the opioid crisis.

It said it has allocated $30 million for up to 21 consumption and treatment sites and has invested $32.7 million for “targeted addictions services and supports, including treatment and care for opioid use disorder.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 29, 2021.