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Could decriminalization of drugs combat the opioid crisis?

As Toronto Public Health and Toronto Police Service jointly apply for decriminalization of personal use drugs in Canada’s largest city, asked stakeholders if it might work in Greater Sudbury

Toronto Public Health, with the support of the Toronto Police Service, has recently re-applied to Health Canada to decriminalize personal use drugs within the city limits as part of their effort to tackle the opioid crisis. 

When asked if Toronto's plan would work here in Sudbury, Public Health Sudbury & Districts (PHSD) and Greater Sudbury Police told they do not have an official position on the strategy, but PHSD can see both benefits and challenges to what is now being referred to as the “Toronto Model”.

Initially submitted in January 2022, the now updated application from Ontario’s capital city asks Health Canada to go beyond the exemption it recently granted to British Columbia. 

Effective Jan. 31, Health Canada granted B.C. a three-year decriminalization exemption covering adults and certain drugs — namely, opioids, crack and powder cocaine, meth and MDMA — and decriminalizes possession up to a combined 2.5 grams of otherwise illegal drugs.  

The Toronto Model does not outline a proposed threshold, nor does it have limitations on the types of substances one can possess. The city is asking for all drugs to be decriminalized for personal use and for the exemption to cover adults and young people. 

It would also extend across the city, except for schools, child-care facilities and airports.

Toronto Public Health’s stated goal is to “reduce the mental, physical and social harms associated with criminalizing people for possessing drugs for their personal use.”

In the application itself, Toronto Police Service states their data shows that of 617 charges for possession in 2021, in 36 of these cases, possession was the only charge. In 581 of these cases, a possession charge was in addition to other charges under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. 

In many countries across the world decriminalization has proven effective. Czechia, the Netherlands, Portugal and Switzerland are among a  handful of countries that have decriminalized drug use and possession for personal use and have invested in harm reduction programmes.

According to a New York Times analysis, the number of heroin users in Portugal has dropped from 100,000 to just 25,000 today. The number of HIV diagnoses caused by injection drug use has plummeted by more than 90 per cent. Over the last 20 years, levels of drug use in Portugal are consistently under the European average, particularly with young people between the ages of 15-34.

Instead of prison cells, drug-dependent individuals in Portugal are now offered treatment programs that integrate them back into society. Even police officers have benefited, now free to focus on intercepting large-scale trafficking and uncovering smugglers. 

A 2015 study found that since Portugal approved this new national strategy, the per capita social cost of substance use decreased by 18 per cent.
For more information on the Portugal Model, see’s coverage here

But those countries managed decriminalization from a national level, whereas Toronto would be at the municipal level. asked GSPS and PHSD about the application to see if any aspects of it could be used at a municipal level in the Nickel City. 

Though GSPS would be responsible for the enforcement aspect, they stated any comments from them “would be premature” until they discussed it with the Community Drug Strategy, made up of more than 40 agencies in the area. The Community Drug Strategy last met on June 20.  Although it previously met quarterly, the group has moved to monthly meetings.

Public Health Sudbury does not have an official position on decriminalization, but is aware of several models in use around the country. 

“We do recognize that there could be benefits to drug decriminalization,” said Carlo Circelli, PHSD health promoter. “We do also identify that there are some potential risks to decriminalization, as well.” 

Circelli’s role includes conducting research, analyzing evidence for informed practices at the health unit, and he said that as an agency, PHSD is pleased to see Toronto Public Health “making these meaningful efforts towards drug decriminalization for personal use, especially with having such a toxic and volatile drug supply.”

Beginning with the change from the justice system to the health-care system is a good start for people who use drugs, said Circelli.  

“Removing those criminal punishments and sanctions and helping to reduce the stigma for people that use drugs can help make it easier for them to access treatment and services,” he said, “instead of being indebted, facing fines or penalties, or potentially having a criminal record.”

The potential risks of Toronto’s drug decriminalization comes down to city limits. 

“They (Toronto Public Health) identified in their letter that policing the boundary of the Greater Toronto area can be difficult, as it's not applied to the entire province,” said Circelli. “So maybe, applying the rules and the exemption to the boundaries of the GTA can be maybe a little bit challenging.”

Circelli said that while he agrees there is the need for more social support and treatment options for people who use substances, the evidence shows that decriminalization of drugs for personal use isn't a “one model fits all” situation. 

“There's definitely other methods of tackling and combating the toxic drug crisis to help reduce the high rate of use and overdose deaths,” he said. “A harm reduction perspective is important, including supervised consumption services, which we offer here in Sudbury, which essentially allows people who use drugs to have a safe space to do so. 

Circelli said that in addition to handing out safe equipment, drug checking services would help reduce harm.  

“When people do go to a supervised consumption state, they could know the exact composition of their drug, especially with such a volatile and toxic drug supply,” he said. “We want to make sure that there's no risk of any contamination within the substance.” 

Circelli also said there services that can be combined with drug decriminalization, such as increased mental health supports and increased social services to ensure a more fulsome model.

Circelli said he will be following the Toronto Model closely, and said that while he can’t predict what will happen with the Toronto Public Health application, he said there is the possibility it could lead to an Ontario-wide effort to decriminalize drugs for personal possession.  

The city currently has plans to host a leadership summit, tentatively scheduled for October, on the drug crisis. Council voted to create the conference to address the issues of the opioid epidemic in Sudbury after a presentation by Ontario’s Chief Coroner, Dirk Huyer. 

Huyer was Invited by Ward 6 Coun. René Lapierre, who told fellow councillors his motion to create the summit came after he saw a need to “think outside the box”, to go beyond “anti-stigma campaign, awareness and education, naloxone distribution, drug warnings, supervised consumption sites, accessible treatment, proactive, informed enforcement and more.”

For more information about the Toronto Model, click here

Jenny Lamothe covers vulnerable and marginalized communities for 


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Jenny Lamothe

About the Author: Jenny Lamothe

Jenny Lamothe is a reporter with She covers the diverse communities of Sudbury, especially the vulnerable or marginalized.
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