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Addictions minister had ‘deep concerns’ with Toronto’s decriminalization pitch

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OTTAWA — Federal Addictions Minister Ya’ara Saks says she had “deep concerns” about the lack of limits Toronto put on its now-rejected pitch to decriminalize the possession of illegal drugs — and the city health agency’s refusal to make any changes.

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

That came after she faced weeks of growing political pressure to abandon support for the policy.

The minister now says the proposal did not include age restrictions or limits on the amount of drugs a person could have in their possession.

She says she made the decision to refuse the pitch after she received word in early May that Toronto would not amend its plans to address the concerns raised earlier 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 announced publicly.

In a statement, he said decriminalization is but one “evidence-informed 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 meant to address some of the concerns raised about the proposal,” Saks said.

Not only did Toronto’s application seek to decriminalize personal possession of “all” controlled drugs and substances, but Saks said it did not set limits on how much one person was allowed to possess.

“Having that threshold matters because it’s about personal use,” the minister said.

“As opposed to trafficking, which falls clearly under … the lens of enforcement, and Toronto didn’t set that threshold.”

“The application from Toronto Public Health also did not include age restrictions, unlike a similar pilot project in British Columbia,” she said.

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

A recent request from British Columbia to scale back a similar pilot project in that province threw the fate of Toronto’s application into question.

More confusion was piled onto the matter when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dismissed the Toronto Public Health’s application as not being active.

On May 7, Saks told reporters that its application was “dormant” and that nothing had come across her desk.

She said on Thursday that officials had heard nothing from Toronto Public Health for months, but then at the beginning of May, the agency informed Health Canada they would not amend the proposal.

On May 17, the news release announcing the rejection of the proposal said it failed to “adequately protect public health and maintain public safety.”

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

The rejection comes after Ottawa agreed to scale back the pilot project in B.C.

That province became the first jurisdiction in Canada to pilot the 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 provincial NDP government to recriminalize the use of drugs in public spaces. Their use in private spaces is still legal.

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

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

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