Poilievre Conservatives forewarn ‘chaos’ should Liberals decriminalize drugs in Toronto

‘If you allow Toronto to legalize hard drugs, as you did with British Columbia, the only outcome will be leaving the most vulnerable Canadians to a life of misery and despair,’ said Opposition leader Pierre Poilievre.

Poilievre Conservatives forewarn ‘chaos’ should Liberals decriminalize drugs in Toronto
The Canadian Press / Darryl Dyck and The Canadian Press / Adrian Wyld
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After British Columbia erred in their advocacy of decriminalizing drugs, Toronto appears hell-bent on going down the same road.

In 2022, the city of Toronto requested a Health Canada exemption for public drug use. The following year, they amended their initial ask to decriminalize possession of any amount and protect youth from prosecution.

On Tuesday, Toronto Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa said they crafted the proposal after consulting a “wide range of stakeholders,” including Toronto police and former users.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford condemned decriminalization efforts as a “nightmare,” saying more should be spent on addiction treatment.

The city of Toronto remains committed to making other treatment investments, according to Dr. de Villa.

“That’s what we should be doing, not legalizing hard drugs,” said Ford.

Disturbed by the continued support for decriminalization, Opposition leader Pierre Poilievre urged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to reject the request in a strongly worded letter.

He forewarned more “chaos” and overdose deaths, akin to the devastation wrought in B.C. after they legalized possession of up to 2.5 grams of heroin, fentanyl, cocaine, methamphetamine, and other hard drugs under the Controlled Drugs And Substances Act.

“If you allow Toronto to legalize hard drugs, as you did with British Columbia, the only outcome will be leaving the most vulnerable Canadians to a life of misery and despair,” wrote Poilievre.

Since the Pacific province commenced its decriminalization pilot program in January 2023, drug-related deaths claimed the lives of at least 2,511 people or nearly seven people a day, surpassing the previous high of 2,383 deaths in 2022.

“We see the issues with public use and disorder,” B.C. Premier Eby told reporters on April 26.

“People have continued to engage in opioid use behaviour that increases risk of harm,” said the report Horizontal Evaluation Of The Canadian Drugs And Substances Strategy. “Minimal changes since 2017 to rates of high-risk substance use suggest further prevention efforts are required.”

According to in-house Privy Council research, most Canadians oppose the “safe supply” policy. “Participants were mostly negative,” said a 2023 report Continuous Qualitative Data Collection Of Canadians’ Views.

Asked about opioid addiction, British Columbians in federal focus groups called it a major worry. “All believed this to be a significant issue, and many were of the view that rising rates of addiction had contributed to increased crime in their communities,” it reads.

After appealing to Health Canada to recriminalize drug use in public spaces, Eby acknowledged that local law enforcement needed additional tools to keep everyone “safe and comfortable,” as they look to expand treatment options.

Toxicological reports confirm that illicit fentanyl continues to drive the toxic drug crisis in B.C., appearing in more than 85% of test results conducted last year. Hydromorphone, a fentanyl analogue, was detected in about 3% of tests.

Poilievre has called on Parliament to hold an emergency debate on the issue following the appeal but to no avail. B.C.’s pilot program runs until January 31, 2026.

On Monday, Addictions Minister Ya’ara Saks told reporters the appeal is underway. “I only received the letter on Friday. It is under review with officials at this time,” she said.

The lives of at least 13,794 residents have been lost to narcotics since the province first declared a public health emergency in April 2016.

Drug overdoses remain the leading cause of death in B.C. for persons aged 10 to 59, accounting for more deaths than homicides, suicides, accidents and natural diseases combined.

Two days ago, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland refused to say whether Ottawa would roll back B.C.’s drug decriminalization policy but pledged support amid its opioid crisis.

“The province of B.C. made a request for a temporary pilot project. B.C. now has concerns about that project, which we share,” she said. “We are now working together to address those concerns.”

On Wednesday, Minister Saks said every request they receive would be reviewed on a “case-by-case basis” but would not discuss public disorder.

“What does that say to you about the policy?” asked a reporter. “We have to look at this as a health care crisis,” replied Saks.

“What went wrong?” asked a reporter. “We are still evaluating the data and working with British Columbia,” replied Saks.

“Are you committed to decriminalization?” asked a reporter. “We work with jurisdictions on a case-by-case basis,” replied Saks.

Poilievre accuses the minister of wasting time “while people are dying.” He pointed to cabinet benches: “What the hell are they thinking over there?”

The Department of Health in a report disclosed on January 10 acknowledged the policy had minimal impacts on addiction despite costing $820.1 million.

Before the Commons Health Committee, Dr. Alexander Caudarella, CEO of the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction, testified Monday that decriminalization was not the answer. “This spectrum must also include prevention,” he said.

“Our failure to collaborate more effectively amongst sectors strains the broader healthcare system,” said Dr. Caudarella. “Harms from substance use cost the country $49 billion or about $1,300 per Canadian.”

The Trudeau Liberals have committed more than $1 billion to address the overdose fatalities since 2017, according to a December 2023 update detailing federal actions. This included more than $359.2 million allocated in Budget 2023 over five years for the renewed Canadian Drugs and Substances Strategy (CDSS).

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