As the number of deaths rises in Canada from a toxic drug supply, advocates say it is “unconscionable” that the federal government has yet to decide on requests to decriminalize drug possession in some parts of the country.

Not only is the delay cause for concern, but there is also a growing fear that the government’s ultimate decision may not help alleviate the crisis, but only make it worse.

Health Canada is currently weighing exemption requests from Vancouver, the British Columbia government and Toronto to decriminalize drug possession in those jurisdictions. Vancouver submitted almost a year ago, while Toronto sent its request in January. Edmonton city council also decided last month that it will request an exemption.

“I think it’s unconscionable,” Donald MacPherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, said of the delay, noting the amount of work that already went into the three submitted exemption requests.

“How many times do I have to say it? We’re in the middle of the worst drug toxicity crisis the country has ever seen, and decriminalization is seen as one of the valuable tools that we could use to help people reduce their risk of death.”

More than 5,300 opioid-related deaths were recorded in Canada between January and September 2021, according to the latest federal data, primarily in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario.

Modelling projections released in December by the Public Health Agency of Canada estimated as many as 4,000 Canadians could die of overdoses in the first half of this year.

Advocates have long called for decriminalization as one necessary tool to tackle Canada’s toxic drug supply crisis, in which drugs are contaminated with powerful opioids such as fentanyl.

A top concern for them and people who use drugs is that Health Canada might only want to decriminalize a small portion of drugs per person. They argue a low threshold is based on demands from police and not in line with drug usage patterns, and say it will be ineffective and even dangerous for people who use drugs.

That fear was heightened last month when British Columbia revealed that Health Canada was mulling a threshold of 2.5 grams per person as part of the province’s exemption application, leading to worry that a low threshold will also be imposed on Toronto and other jurisdictions seeking an exemption. (Health Canada’s decisions on the applications are not yet final.)

“It’s called the iron law of prohibition — the harder you crack down, the more concentrated the stuff gets,” said Petra Schulz, a co-founder of the advocacy group Moms Stop the Harm.

Schulz’s youngest son, Danny, died in 2014 from a fentanyl overdose at age 25.

“Our fear is that with a lower threshold, there will be more concentrated substances,” she said, “and we know that every time there is a higher concentration, there is a higher rate of drug poisoning deaths.”

Toronto’s request to Health Canada does not propose specific thresholds, and echoes the concerns around drug potency if the legal amount is set too low. British Columbia proposed a cumulative total of 4.5 grams of drugs per person, while Vancouver asked for a different maximum amount depending on the type of drug.

Toronto Public Health told the Star that it wants to work with people who use drugs, experts and the police to “develop a definition of personal possession that reflects the unique needs of our city.”

A member of the working group advising TPH on thresholds for its application said the group recommended against specific thresholds.

“The working group members have repeatedly and consistently urged the exemption from Toronto not to impose a threshold,” said group member Sandra Ka Hon Chu, co-executive director of the HIV Legal Network. “We think they’re unnecessary.”

She described as “tragically inadequate” the fact that even if these exemption requests are approved, it will create a patchwork system across the country where possession will be decriminalized in some jurisdictions but not others.

“And those exemptions themselves might be inadequate,” she said, adding that imposing low thresholds will also contribute to the over-policing and over-incarceration of Black, Indigenous and marginalized individuals.

More than 20 organizations, including the HIV Legal Network and groups representing people who use drugs, wrote to federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos and Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett in April saying there is “no legal evidentiary basis” for a threshold of 2.5 grams.

“A 2.5 grams threshold flies in the face of your government’s commitment to evidence-based drug policy, anti-racism, and reconciliation with Indigenous communities,” said the letter.

“It sets a dangerous precedent for other municipalities across Canada seeking an exemption.”

Health Canada told the Star it does not comment on requests under review.

“I always turn this threshold question around to the police — because they’re the ones who want the low thresholds — and ask ‘Who is it that you want to arrest?’” said Garth Mullins, a member of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, and who was engaged in the Vancouver and B.C. exemption applications.

“They’ll say the big fish, the people at the top, but I’ll say the people at the top aren’t trifling around in grams. That’s the wrong unit of measurement.”

While stating that drug use should be treated as a public health issue and not a criminal justice one, the Liberal government has repeatedly refused to budge on decriminalization for the whole country. Cabinet ministers have pointed to the exemption requests under review when asked about the government’s stance.

The government’s Bill C-5, currently making its way through the House of Commons, would require police and prosecutors to use their discretion to keep drug possession cases out of the courts, but carries no consequences if they fail to do so, and it would leave possession offences on the books.

A private member’s bill, C-216, from New Democrat MP Gord Johns would repeal the possession offences in the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, but it remains unclear if the Liberals will provide the necessary support to send it to committee for study when it’s up for a vote around June 1.

“The fact that Johns’s bill is amending the CDSA, that’s a good idea, that’s where the root of all of this bull—t is,” Mullins said.

“We don’t just need an exemption from it, we need to change that act. It is the source code for drug prohibition in Canada.”

Jacques Gallant is a Toronto-based reporter covering politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @JacquesGallant