Ontario’s big city mayors are calling for the decriminalization of drugs and for the continued funding and development of mental health crisis response units.
The appeal comes as the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network (ODPRN) reported 2,426 opioid-related deaths in 2020, a 60 per cent increase from 2019.
“It has never been clearer that action is needed now,” Ontario’s Big City Mayors (OBCM) said.
“While the provincial government is responsible for funding and coordinating mental health and addictions supports, all levels of government have a role to play in improving services for our residents.”
On Tuesday, OBCM chair and Barrie Mayor Jeff Lehman told Global News Radio 640 Toronto that traditional approaches to combatting the opioid crisis aren’t working.
“The war on drugs isn’t working,” Lehman said. “We need to start understanding that this is a public health crisis for people who are addicted and to take a health approach to the people who are using drugs rather than policing.”
Lehman said decriminalizing drugs doesn’t mean they’re legal. What it does mean, he said, is that producing, trafficking and selling drugs is still illegal, while users who are in simple possession of drugs are diverted to the health-care system instead of facing criminal sanctions.
In a statement, Marianne Meed Ward, Burlington’s mayor and the co-chair of OBCM’s mental health working committee, said mental health crisis response units have been tested out in municipalities across Ontario. The units are composed of both trained mental health professionals and police officers who respond to low-risk crisis calls and wellness checks.
“We are calling for a consistent program to be mandated province-wide with the necessary funding to support and ensure their success,” she said.
In order to decriminalize drugs, Lehman said some federal laws would need to change and that there needs to be a provincial system in place. Right now, he said, Ontario is piloting something called “justice centres,” which act as a diversion point for somebody who is found to be using or in possession of drugs to be put in a system where there are treatment options.
“There are not enough options and opportunities for treatment for using particularly opioids, and that’s where the investment really will have to come at the provincial level,” Lehman said.
In a statement, Darrin Canniff, mayor of Chatham-Kent and the co-chair of OBCM’s mental health working committee, said OBCM is asking the federal government to decriminalize drugs to “enhance public safety and save lives.”
“The OBCM caucus is eager to collaborate with the federal government on how we better improve people’s lives who are struggling with substance use and reduce societal trauma associated with deaths,” he added.
Ontario’s mayors aren’t the first group to call for the decriminalization of drugs.
Last year, Canada’s police chiefs endorsed the decriminalization of personal possession of drugs and recommended for all police agencies across the country to recognize substance abuse and addiction as a public health issue. Public health experts have also advocated for this.