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Mayors of Ontario’s largest cities ask the federal and provincial governments to decriminalize controlled substances
June 22, 2021
Francine Kopun

The federal and provincial governments should decriminalize controlled substances in an effort to get ahead of what is being called a drug poisoning crisis, the head of the organization representing the mayors of Ontario’s 29 largest cities said Monday.

“We believe we can move quickly to take much stronger steps that will address the opioid crisis,” said Barrie Mayor Jeff Lehman, chair of Ontario’s Big City Mayors, in an interview with the Star.

Lehman said the reaction by all governments to the COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear just how quickly action can be taken to address a public health crisis, and the same speed needs to be applied now to stem the growth in the number of overdose deaths in cities across Ontario.

The mayors are also calling for the continued creation and funding of mental health crisis response units, which combine mental health professionals and police officers to respond to low-risk crisis calls and wellness checks.

Lehman said the decision to call for decriminalization was made after months of study by a working group within the mayors’ group, which looked at mental health and addiction, and consulted with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health; the Canadian Mental Health Association and the Association of Municipalities of Ontario to develop a position paper.

The decision was unanimous among the 21 mayors who voted on the position, said Lehman.

“It’s part of a broader decision that the mayors are taking, which is that it’s a health crisis and it is one that we’re not going to arrest our way out of, it’s one that requires a whole-of-community response and a whole-of-government response,” said Lehman.

Toronto Mayor John Tory was not present for the vote, Lehman said.

A spokesperson from Tory’s office said the mayor supports the Toronto Board of Health direction approved earlier this month to ask for decriminalization.

Tory has also advocated for additional funding for mental health and increased treatment programs, including mental health crisis response units, for several years, according to his office.

The number of Mobile Crisis Intervention Teams in Toronto is also being expanded, with an eye to responding to approximately 45 per cent more mental health-related calls for service. Crisis response pilots are scheduled to launch next year.

The mayors’ group cites data from the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network, which reported 2,426 opioid-related deaths in 2020, a 60 per cent increase over 2019, making 2020 the worst year on record since tracking began.

Lehman cited the isolation created by COVID-19 as a contributing factor.

“When people are overdosing alone, no one is there to get them help and, unfortunately, that results in more people dying,” Lehman said.

He said the issue needs to be seen as the intersection of crises in homelessness, mental health and addictions, which are “magnifying each other.”

Lehman, who has been Barrie mayor since 2010, said his city’s rate of opioid poisoning leading to visits to hospital emergency rooms is the third highest in the province.

Ontario’s Big City Mayors, formerly known as the Large Urban Mayors’ Caucus of Ontario, includes mayors of cities with a population of 100,000 or more. They collectively represent nearly 70 per cent of Ontario’s population.

Many mental health leaders and chiefs of police have called for the decriminalization of controlled substances, and the continued creation and funding of mental health crisis response units.