Toronto’s denied drug decriminalization is a step ‘backwards,’ expert says |

Provinces and territories should not stop pushing for drug decriminalization despite the federal government’s rejection of Toronto’s request, one expert says.

Guy Felicella, a harm reduction and recovery expert in British Columbia, says all regions in Canada need to persevere with treating substance addictions as a health issue.

“I think everybody should be making those requests still, regardless of what the federal government is going to do… because the current model of criminalizing people doesn’t work,” Felicella told Global News on Saturday.

The federal government rejected a request from Toronto health officials to decriminalize the possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use Friday.

Federal Minister of Mental Health and Addiction Ya’ara Saks turned down the bid roughly two years after it was first filed.

“Today, Minister Saks has refused the request, as proposed from Toronto Public Health, to decriminalize personal possession of controlled drugs and substances for people in Toronto,” a statement issued by Health Canada Friday read.

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“She has determined that it does not adequately protect public health and maintain public safety,” the agency said.

Guy Felicella is photographed in Vancouver, Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019.


Felicella says Ottawa’s decision shows the federal government is looking at the issue of drug use through a criminal lens, “which we already know doesn’t change anything.”

“(We’re) just going backwards into something that doesn’t work,” he said.

He says incarcerating substance users doesn’t stop them from using and facing harms from drugs. A lack of decriminalization policies also hinders people from achieving a fulfilling life because the effect a criminal record has on access to employment opportunities and proper housing, he says.

“It creates this isolation in society that drives people to use alone. And sadly, they die because of that,” Felicella said.

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He says criminalizing the possession of small quantities of drugs also makes it more challenging for people who are struggling to reach out for help, out of fear of consequences.

“You could lose your children, you could lose your job, you could lose your friends, your family. There are so many factors that go into this,” Felicella said.

Click to play video: 'Ontario warns Toronto to drop proposal to decriminalize drugs for personal use'

Ontario warns Toronto to drop proposal to decriminalize drugs for personal use

Addressing the drug-use crisis requires all three levels of government: experts, officials

Toronto’s medical officer of health, Dr. Eileen de Villa, reiterated her stance in a statement Friday that “decriminalization is one evidence-informed policy tool” to make it easier for people to seek help.

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She said the federal government’s decision to turn down her request has only heightened the need to invest in “other available evidence-based interventions” in the city.

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Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow said in a press conference Saturday that substance addiction is a “disease” and “health crisis,” which is why she says a treatment program that all levels of government are committed to is essential.

“They’ve been saying they want to focus on a treatment program. Well, that’s what we need to do. So let’s get together,” Chow said, referring to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Doug Ford.

“If we just focus on the legal aspect, we’re missing the whole point,” she said.

Click to play video: 'Drug users need support “not jail sentences” says Trudeau in wake of B.C. decriminalization changes'

Drug users need support “not jail sentences” says Trudeau in wake of B.C. decriminalization changes

Felicella echoed Chow’s sentiments about the need for all levels of government to band together to help Canadians with substance addictions.

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“What we have to do is get together and come up with a strategy collectively,” he said.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has been vocal about his disapproval of drug decriminalization policies.

Poilievre said in a social media post Friday that “after pushing to decriminalize hard drug use in public spaces, (Trudeau) is backtracking in the hopes he can impose it after the election, when voters can’t stop him,” he said in the post on X, formerly known as Twitter.

B.C. pull-back on decriminalization stirs tension

B.C. began a pilot project in January 2023 to decriminalize the use of hard drugs. However, just a year and a half later, the province backtracked after B.C. Premier David Eby expressed concerns about an “escalating situation” regarding public safety.

The federal government ultimately granted B.C.‘s request to once again ban the public use of illicit drugs earlier this month.

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“This is a health crisis, not a criminal one. That being said, communities need to be safe,” Saks said at the time.

Click to play video: 'Pierre Poilievre accuses Justin Trudeau of working to decriminalize drugs in Toronto'

Pierre Poilievre accuses Justin Trudeau of working to decriminalize drugs in Toronto

In 2023, 2,551 drug deaths in B.C. were linked to the unregulated market — a record high for the province. In the first three months of 2024, drug deaths have been seeing a slight decline in B.C. compared to 2023.

“Let’s be clear. Decriminalization is not the cause of the overdose deaths that we’re seeing. It is the illegal toxic drug supply that is killing people,” Saks said.

B.C.’s request to roll back on its decriminalization pilot prompted a heated debate in the House of Commons earlier this month.

Poilievre was booted from the House after calling Justin Trudeau a “wacko prime minister” for allowing the province to decriminalize small amounts of hard drugs in the first place.

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Felicella told Global News Saturday that officials must remember that prison is about incarceration, not about rehabilitation, which is what substance users need.

“If we’re going to continue to criminalize people and put people in prison, it’s just going to be a revolving door of parole violations, probation, criminal records, and just nothing will change,” he said.

“So we can’t keep going and doing the same things over and over again expecting a different result.”

— with files from Global’s Isaac Callan, Simon Little and David Baxter

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