Peterborough’s Board of Health is showing support for the decriminalization of illegal drugs for personal use, as well as expanded access to safe supply options for people who use drugs.
It comes in a letter the board sent to Health Minister Christine Elliott two days before the provincial election campaign began on May 4.
“The harms related to opioid use have increased at an unprecedented and alarming rate in Peterborough County and City,” said board chair Andy Mitchell in the letter. Ending criminal penalties for drug possession would help reduce those harms, as well as the stigma faced by people who use drugs, the letter says.
While it would be up to the federal government to decriminalize drugs, the letter urges the province to join calls for Ottawa to do so.
The health board is following the lead of the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit, whose health board has proposed a string of measures to stem Ontario’s drug poisoning crisis, including a push for decriminalization and a “robust” provincial opioid response plan. Peterborough’s health board voted in April to write to Elliott in support of those recommendations.
Last year, British Columbia became the first province to seek decriminalization within its borders by applying to Health Canada for an exemption from federal drug laws. Toronto’s Board of Health took the same step late last year.
B.C. health officials said the threat of criminal penalties contributes to fear and shame around drug use, which stops people from seeking life-saving services and treatment. “Substance use and addictions is a public health issue, it is not a criminal justice issue,” B.C.’s Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson said in a press release.
Ontario has seen a dramatic increase in drug poisoning deaths since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. A record 2,819 people died from opioid toxicity in 2021, according to the provincial coroner. That’s an 84 percent increase from 2019, the year before the pandemic started.
A safe supply of drugs
The health board also asked Elliott to expand safe supply options for people who use drugs and fund more supervised consumption sites.
The letter says safe supply programs, which provide drug users with pharmaceutical-grade opioids as a replacement for potentially-lethal drugs bought on the street, should be “scaled up.”
Peterborough is the site of a federally-funded safe supply pilot project that will involve 50 drug users when it begins this week.
The Ford government announced in 2019 that it would fund a maximum of 21 supervised drug consumption sites, which it calls Consumption and Treatment Services sites, across the province. The health board wants the province to lift that cap and also fund temporary supervised drug consumption sites that can be opened on short notice when there is an urgent need for one in a community.
Poisonings from opioid inhalation on the rise
The health board is also raising concerns about a rise in drug poisonings from smoking, rather than injecting, opioids such as fentanyl.
Ontario saw a sharp jump in opioid deaths from inhalation drug use during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to an analysis prepared for the province’s chief coroner.
It found that nearly 34 percent of all opioid poisoning deaths in Ontario between March and December 2020 were likely caused by inhalation drug use, based on evidence, such as smoking pipes, collected at the scene. That’s an increase from 23 percent during the same period in 2019.
To address the increase, the province should consider changes to how supervised drug consumption sites operate, the letter says. Injection drug use is permitted at the sites but inhalation is not.
Create more housing for people with substance use disorders
The letter also calls for “a long-term financial commitment” to build more affordable and supportive housing for people in need, including those with “substance use disorders,” as well as expanded access to methadone and suboxone, medications that reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms.
Elliott, who has been health minister since Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives took office in 2018, is not seeking re-election in the June 2 provincial election.