Addictions Minister had ‘deep concerns’ with Toronto’s decriminalization argument

Federal Addictions Minister Ya’ara Saks says she had “deep concerns” about the lack of limits Toronto placed on its now-rejected proposal to decriminalize illegal drug possession, and the city’s health agency’s refusal to make changes.

Earlier this month, Saks told reporters that Toronto Public Health’s long-standing application was “inactive,” and then announced its denial days later, on a Friday night before a long weekend.

This came after he faced weeks of mounting political pressure to drop his support for the policy.

The minister now says the proposal included no age restrictions or limits on the amount of drugs a person could have in their possession.

She says she made the decision to reject the proposal after receiving news in early May that Toronto would not modify its plans to address concerns previously raised by department officials.

A spokesperson for Toronto Public Health did not answer questions about the minister’s description of her objections or the timeline of events.

Dane Griffiths said the agency was informed of Ottawa’s decision to reject its application on May 17, the same day it was publicly announced.

In a statement, he said decriminalization is just an “evidence-based policy tool to help remove barriers to care.”

“I had deep concerns with the proposal,” Saks told The Canadian Press in an interview Thursday.

The city first submitted its decriminalization request in January 2022 and updated it in 2023.

“Health Canada presented Toronto Public Health with a series of questions intended to address some of the concerns raised about the proposal,” Saks said.

Toronto’s application not only sought to decriminalize personal possession of “all” drugs and controlled substances, but Saks said it did not set limits on the amount a person could possess.

“Having that threshold is important because it is about personal use,” the minister said.

“Unlike traffic, which clearly falls under … the lens of law enforcement, and Toronto didn’t set that threshold.”

“Toronto Public Health’s application also did not include age restrictions, unlike a similar pilot project in British Columbia,” he said.

“We didn’t have confidence in it, especially when it came to young people.”

A recent request from British Columbia to scale back a similar pilot project in that province cast doubt on the fate of Toronto’s request.

More confusion arose over the matter when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dismissed Toronto Public Health’s request as not active.

On May 7, Saks told reporters that his app was “down” and nothing had arrived on his desktop.

He said Thursday that officials had not heard from Toronto Public Health for months, but then in early May the agency informed Health Canada that they would not amend the proposal.

On May 17, the press release announcing the proposal’s rejection said it had failed to “adequately protect public health or maintain public safety.”

He also cited a lack of support from the Ontario government, after Premier Doug Ford and his ministers repeatedly vowed to fight Toronto’s request.

The rejection comes after Ottawa agreed to scale back the pilot project in British Columbia.

That province became the first jurisdiction in Canada to pilot decriminalization of personal drug possession in early 2023, as a way to combat the toxic drug supply and overdose crisis by destigmatizing drug use.

It was limited to certain illegal substances such as heroin, fentanyl, cocaine and methamphetamine.

In April, the Liberals received an urgent request from the NDP provincial government to recriminalize drug use in public spaces. Its use in private spaces remains legal.

The change came in response to concerns from police and nurses, as well as backlash from the public and from federal Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre, who blamed decriminalization for fueling addiction and overdose deaths.

“Toronto’s proposal cannot be compared apples to apples with the model used in the West,” Saks said, “where there are age limits and only certain drugs have been decriminalized.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 24, 2024.

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