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EDITORIAL: Ford needs to step up and lead for once (May 2024)

June 14th, 2024 · No Comments

The competing notions of treating illicit drug use as a health issue versus a criminal one is at the heart of a divide between the City of Toronto and the Province of Ontario. The city wants to decriminalize and help people who are addicted and the province thinks it can arrest its way out of the problem.

Five hundred people a year die in Toronto from preventable overdoes and that number is growing. The drug toxicity problem is so acute that being an addict without access to a safe supply or a supportive place to use it is extremely hazardous. Those who overdose outside those safe zones and are thankfully rescued by emergency medical services occupy hospital emergency wards. But of course, these beds displace other equally needy patients seeking help for other reasons. It adds pressure to an already overburdened system.

The debate over decriminalization is a red herring as the number of charges laid for simple possession are very low in Toronto, and prosecutors rarely take these cases anyway. It seems that Toronto police and the Crown attorney’s office are on the same page here and have decided there is nothing to gain in trying to jail people for their addiction issues. 

The federal government is stuck on the issue as it controls the heavy hammer of the criminal code but lacks the constitutional role of providing health care. It refused to heed the city’s recent request to decriminalize while the province sits on its hands and refuses to come to the table. The Doug Ford government is stuck in a 1980s Nancy Reagan “Just Say No” era and of course has no plan to help those dealing with addiction. Federal Mental Health and Addictions Minister Ya’ara Saks in denying Toronto’s request cited the “lack of support from key players including the province of Ontario.” 

In a way Ford was right, for all the wrong reasons of course, to ask Ottawa to oppose the city’s request. It’s simply not enough to make possession not a crime. Effective harm reduction measures require a broad approach to treating addiction such as treatment beds, detox programs, rehab, counselling, a safe supply, a place to inject, and a promise not to incarcerate you for doing so. British Columbia (BC) tried this latter approach and it failed. Protections need to be in place, the public needs to be considered around these sites, needles need be collected and youth need to be out of harms way. A mother of two young children was caught in the cross fire and killed by a stray bullet outside a safe injection site in Leslieville last summer.

In BC, police found that the safe supply had migrated into the black market, which begs questions about how organized crime was able to infiltrate a government sponsored program. So BC’s approach was not perfect. But they tried and they will learn from it. We could learn from their experience too and develop a better program. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health says that in recent years, more than 2,500 have died each year as a result of drug toxicity alone, and opioid deaths among teens have tripled.

Neither the police, the courts, or the health care system alone can address this issue; it takes all three levels of government acting in concert. But without the resolve of the Ontario premier, who has seen the effects of addiction and drug abuse in his own family, we cannot find that community-wide solution. Ford just wants to conjure up tired old “war on drugs, tough on crime” narratives and wishes the problem would bury itself in a jail cell or a morgue. 

As the issues of drug addiction, and drug toxicity increase, it touches more and more Ontario families,  more and more voting families. It’s a lack of Ford’s willingness to govern for all the people that is most frustrating. As this health care pandemic grows, Ford may be motivated to try and find meaningful solutions that do not include sticking his head in the sand. Why not learn from BC’s initiative and develop an even better program for Ontario?


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