Toronto Public Health drug-policy consultation results

Through a public consultation process, Toronto Public Health has found that Torontonians do not believe the current approach to drug policy is working and are supportive of drug use being treated as a public health and social issue, not a criminal one.

In response to the opioid poisoning emergency, Toronto Public Health sought public input about Canada’s current approach to drugs and held discussions on what a public health approach to drug policy could look like for Canada.

“While considerable work has been done, the situation remains urgent and too many people are still dying. These preventable deaths are affecting our family members, friends and colleagues, and we must do more,” said Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health. “The criminalization of people who take drugs is contributing to the overdose emergency because it forces people into unsafe drug use practices and creates barriers to seeking help. This is why I am calling on the federal government to take urgent action.”

On behalf of Toronto Public Health, Ipsos Public Affairs hosted a community dialogue process this spring, which included:
• two in-person community sessions, one downtown and one in Etobicoke, open to anyone interested in participating.
• interviews with people who use drugs at four community agencies in the north, central, east and west areas of the city.
• an open online survey for anyone interested in participating.
• a targeted public survey to ensure the demographics of the respondents reflected the City’s adult population.

Opioid overdose deaths in Toronto continue to increase. Preliminary data from the Office of the Chief Coroner for Ontario show that in 2017, there were 303 opioid overdose deaths in Toronto. This represents a 63 per cent increase from 2016 and a 121 per cent increase from 2015.

Governments around the world are considering different approaches to drugs with some countries decriminalizing drug use and possession. Others are legalizing and regulating drugs. Toronto Public Health is recommending a comprehensive public health approach to drugs to the Board of Health at the July 16 meeting. The report recommends that the Board call on the federal government to decriminalize the possession of all drugs for personal use and increase prevention, harm reduction and treatment services.

Toronto Public Health is also recommending that the Board ask the federal government to convene a task force to explore options for the legal regulation of all drugs in Canada, based on a public health approach. The task force should include people who use drugs as well as policy, research and program experts in the areas of public health, human rights, substance use, mental health and criminal justice.

“Some people who use drugs are more impacted by our drug laws than others, including people who are homeless or living in poverty, people with mental health and substance use issues and youth. We need to scale up prevention, harm reduction and treatment services to ensure we can provide the supports that people require,” added Dr. de Villa.

More information is available at

— Lenore Bromley