OTTAWA—Toronto’s request to decriminalize possession of drugs remains on hold almost a year after it was made, in part because of “political cowardice” in Ottawa, a harm-reduction advocate says.

“People are dying because the drug supply is contaminated and it’s toxic. Criminalizing people for simple personal possession and use of drugs is going to do more harm than good,” said Daniel Werb, director at the Toronto-based Centre on Drug Policy Evaluation, which helped the city with its request to the federal government.

“It’s the federal government that holds the cards. They decide whether this is going to advance.”

The current delay, Werb said, “is just another in a series of policy delays that are essentially indefensible in terms of rapid, nimble response to the overdose epidemic in Canada.”

He said it also highlights a bigger problem: Ottawa’s unwillingness to protect drug users from an increasingly toxic — and deadly — supply.

“From my perspective, it is political cowardice and a lack of courage,” he said. “If the federal government was serious about ending the overdose epidemic, they would have regulated currently unregulated drug markets.

“It’s as simple as that.”

In January, Toronto Public Health filed its initial request to decriminalize possession of small amounts of illicit drugs.

The effort to reduce overdose deaths from toxic drugs follows a similar request by British Columbia, which has been granted exemptions from prosecuting some drug possession charges beginning next year.

Toronto’s medical officer of health says the city is still pursuing the strategy, but did not elaborate on the reasons for the delay.

“We are working out the details to ensure the model that we’re proposing makes sense for Toronto, and takes into consideration our unique circumstances,” Dr. Eileen de Villa told reporters in Ottawa on Wednesday.

De Villa did not specify what those circumstances are and what remains to be negotiated between Toronto Public Health and the federal government.

“We are in active conversations with Health Canada on the details of the model,” Toronto Public Health said in a written statement, which said “population and geographical considerations” are determining factors for a “Toronto-made” scheme.

Toronto’s request remains with Health Canada.

Mental Health and Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett’s office said it could not respond to the Star’s questions about the approval process “out of respect for applicants” until the review is finalized.

However, it said exemption requests are “carefully reviewed on a case-by-case basis, taking into account all relevant considerations, including evidence of benefits and risks or harms to the health and safety of Canadians.”

According to Werb, that’s not good enough.

“I think (the delay) is just another in a series of policy delays that are essentially indefensible in terms of rapid, nimble response to the overdose epidemic in Canada,” he said.

Werb believes the federal government may be reluctant to move ahead with Toronto’s application before seeing results from the pioneering program in British Columbia.

“They’re going to be waiting for a while if that’s the case,” he said.

“It is going to take months, even a year, to understand what its impacts are, at least in the short term.”

In May, B.C. was granted a three-year exemption from criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use. It will take effect in January 2023.

De Villa said Wednesday that Toronto “can learn a lot from B.C., but (the circumstances) are in fact quite different.”

Toronto’s decriminalization plan promotes expanded social supports in housing, and pharmaceutical-grade alternatives to illicit opioids. Its submission requested that the proposed exemption be applied to all drugs.

Just last week, Toronto Public Health issued an alert about an increase in suspected opioid deaths and the potency of illicit fentanyl.

The alert said paramedics responded to at least 15 suspected fatal overdose calls in the past four weeks, receiving at least five calls on some days.

Toronto Public Health says 4,950 opioid-related deaths were reported in the city from April 2021 to March 2022. That represents a 61 per cent increase compared to pre-pandemic figures.

Irem Koca is an Ottawa-based general assignment reporter for the Star. Reach her via email: