Toronto, B.C. efforts on drug abuse positive first steps but more needed now | Adriana Ortiz

By Adriana Ortiz

Law360 Canada (November 2, 2023, 1:42 PM EDT) --
Adriana Ortiz
Adriana Ortiz
Humanity has long used and abused opiates, which come from the natural world. People consumed, to worship gods, to commune with the dead, to heal or to go on an adventure of the mind

Over the decades, humankind has learned to manipulate chemical structures to invent new drugs. These new drugs grew exponentially in the 2010s. Now, anyone with computer acumen can acquire chemicals with psychoactive compounds that didn’t exist even a few years ago. 

According to the European Monitoring Centre for Dugs and Drug Addiction, 150 new illicit drugs were bought and sold in the market between 1997 and 2010. Another 150 appeared in the next three years. Since then as many as 100 have appeared with synthetic cannabinoids, especially common.

Fentanyl is the new plague. It is a synthetic opioid that is cheap and highly addictive.

Currently, not only are we facing fentanyl, as a street drug, but its more potent analogue carfentanyl, which is 100 times more potent than fentanyl and 10,000 times more potent than morphine. We are losing too many, too fast and too soon, primarily to these two toxic chemicals

When we discuss harm reduction, it may mean different things to different people. I am of the view that a prohibitionist approach is not a proper route.

Others are of the view, that if we agree, that the primary driver of overdose death is the unregulated market, then the best approach should be to intervene on that unregulated market. This sounds to me like an extension to the war on drugs. We all know this war has failed miserably.

If we are to assist with harm reduction, we need to believe in candid talks with respect to drug use. What we need is a dose of reality. Preventing the use of drugs is almost impossible. Making sure that they are used as safely as possible, is a necessity, at least right now. Harm reduction polices should be approached by common sense: a way that saves lives. What can we do to stop life loss and quick is the most important question.

In Europe, a number of efforts have made breakthroughs, including government programs that provide safe drugs to addicted individuals. We have a similar program, through clinics that provide methadone to individuals. Taking some of these drugs in proper quantities usually does not result in death. What kills individuals is rather substances laced with fentanyl or its analogue, dirty needles or other behavioural issues such as violence while under the influence. These are all factors resulting from street consumption.

Another important factor is that on many occasions, individuals are consuming drugs such as fentanyl unbeknownst to them. They may purchase a specific opioid or cannabinoid and receive a product laced with fentanyl or worse yet, carfentanyl. We should make it a priority to ensure that drugs can be tested in a safe site as well.

The opioid crisis is a complex situation, with many factors at play. It’s a matter of health and a matter of human rights. We are facing the perfect storm. We had people struggling with substance use, then the COVID pandemic happened. The pandemic was disproportionately damaging to many vulnerable people.

People found themselves destitute. Homelessness acted as a catalyst and played a factor to fuel a housing crisis, which has been a long time in the making.

Encampments became a new reality. In these encampments the overdose crisis, along with crime levels increased. People were forced into encampments or tent cities, due to a crisis caused by unaffordable housing, or as many have stated the lack of safe housing.  

Instances of crime rose and people were charged. Evictions were attempted by the government. People in their desperation turned to what? Substance use. It is a vicious circle. Without addressing the social factors, we are left on a hamster spinning wheel. The struggle of these individuals is such that they choose to play Russian roulette every time they consume. As a society we should be worried.

Unfortunately, there is a lack of appropriate mental health supports or rehabilitation centres. People need extensive assistance. We cannot expect that a few sessions of counselling will assist with their struggle. This is a battle we cannot afford to lose.

Not all is grim though. I want to acknowledge and commend the efforts of new laws such as the B.C.’s three-year exemption from Health Canada that allows for decriminalization of simple possession.

Toronto is also following B.C.’s steps closely. On March 24, Toronto updated its 14-month request to the federal government, clarifying it wants a Health Canada exemption to cover young people as well as adults, and all drugs for personal use.

When we hear that in Ontario, a 2019 survey conducted by the Canadian Association of Mental Health indicated around 11 per cent of Ontario students in grades seven to 12 reported the nonmedical use of opioids in the past year. And that eight children ages 12 to 17 died from opioid overdoses between 2019 and 2021. We should recognize that there is a tremendous sense of urgency. The opioid crisis is not only affecting the adult population, but our children.

It is also commendable that some safe sites of consumption have been created. At these sites people are connected with mental health supports. These safe sites have helped to reduce the fatalities.

It is clear that the opioid crisis we are facing needs a holistic approach. I still believe that we are failing to match the urgency required of an overdose crisis that kills hundreds of people in Ontario. Exemptions such as these are a step forward, but we are moving too slowly! Many social issues need to be addressed to significantly reduce the loss of life. The question is how fast are we willing to go to make a difference? How far are we willing to go to save a life?

Adriana Ortiz is a criminal defence lawyer and has a GPLLM from the University of Toronto Faculty of Law. You can contact her at

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