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Almost a year later, Hamilton hasn’t requested to decriminalize illicit drugs for personal use

Almost a year after Hamilton city councillors voted to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of illegal drugs, CBC Hamilton has learned city officials still haven’t submitted that request for exemption to Health Canada.

Researchers and advocates have mixed feelings about whether the delay is “inexcusable” or part of “good faith” efforts.

On Aug. 10, 2022, the board of health voted to make the request to Health Canada.

Councillors said at the time there would be benefits, pointing to how Portugal’s decriminalization of some drugs led to fewer deaths, a drop in drug use, lowered stigmatization and more people using treatment services.

Other groups advocating for this include Ontario Big City Mayors, Ontario Association of Police Chiefs, Registered Nurses of Ontario and the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction.

While possession of these drugs would still be criminal in Canada, cities can apply for individual exemptions. A similar request to Health Canada from British Columbia has been granted. In Toronto, a request covered youth as well as adults but has not yet been granted. 

Around the time Hamilton councillors voted on the move, the number of people visiting Hamilton emergency departments to treat drug misuse or overdoses had reached its highest in years.

The situation hasn’t improved.

City data shows there have been 158 more paramedic incidents related to suspected opioid overdoses from January to July this year compared to the same period in 2022.

Earlier this month public health also issued an alert about an uptick in drug poisonings and the circulation of a highly potent or toxic fentanyl called “yellow down.”

But as of Wednesday morning — 357 days later — Health Canada still hasn’t received the request.

Trudeau briefed on council decision ahead of Horwath meeting

CBC Hamilton used a freedom of information request to obtain a briefing note prepared for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau four days before he met with the city’s newly elected mayor, Andrea Horwath, on Jan. 24.

The note is partially redacted but shows the drug decriminalization request was among the topics Trudeau was briefed on.

That section highlighted an “exponential rise” in local deaths linked to opioid use since 2005 and how the city’s medical officer of health was reviewing if the situation met the threshold to declare a state of emergency.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau makes an announcement in a white shirt and red tie while outside.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was briefed in late January about how the city hadn’t filed its request to Health Canada. Months later, the city still hasn’t made its request. (Andrew Lahodynskyj/The Canadian Press)

It also detailed council’s vote for a request and a meeting on Jan. 13 between Health Canada and city staffers about the process.

“However, Health Canada has not received [an] exemption request from the City of Hamilton yet,” reads the briefing note.

The briefing note prompted CBC to request an interview with the city on Monday.

Why hasn’t the request been sent?

The city declined an interview, but offered an emailed statement from Julie Prieto, director of epidemiology and wellness, who said public health is working with partners to “explore different models of decriminalization.”

She also said public health is “working to understand the local context and the impact of recent legislative changes by the federal government to help shape any potential application moving forward.”

“As we learn more, we will provide an update to the board of health on next steps,” Prieto said.

She said the city is addressing the toxic drug supply through the city’s opioid action plan.

Health Canada spokesperson Charlaine Sleiman said in an email the government will work with willing jurisdictions to “use all tools at our disposal to address the toxic drug and overdose crisis, including approaches to decriminalization.”

‘Inexcusable’ or ‘good faith?’

James Lambert, a volunteer with the Hamilton Encampment Support Network, said the delay is “inexcusable” and the city should push for full decriminalization for the possession of any illegal substance.

“I just don’t see what there is to discuss here,” Lambert said.

James MacKillop, chair of the Peter Boris Centre for Addictions Research at McMaster University and St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton, said it’s “too simplistic” to say the request should’ve happened sooner and said the delay “makes sense” assuming the city is exercising due diligence.

“Of course, assuming due diligence is happening is not a small assumption,” he said.

MacKillop said the requests like the proposed one to Health Canada can come out of “desperation” to combat overdoses and must be done carefully.

“Because it needs to be part of a multi-pronged strategy, it makes more sense to make sure it’s implemented in a way that really takes into considerations all these different factors and avoids unintended consequences.”

Cynthia Belaskie is a member of Alcohol and Drugs History Society, a peer-reviewed international journal.

She expressed optimism, saying the delay may be a part of “good faith” efforts by the city.

She also thinks the mere approval by council last year will have an impact, pointing to a drop in drug possession charges laid by Hamilton police in recent years.

Police laid 558 drug possession charges under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act in 2020, but last year that number fell to 246 charges, according to annual reports.

That said, Belaskie still thinks the request to Health Canada is necessary.

“When you decriminalize something and you regulate it, there’s a net benefit to society,” she said.

“As long as we’re keeping things criminalized, we’re keeping people as criminals and that’s not leading to a better society.”

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