On November 9th, 2015, the City of Toronto hosted an event honouring the 10th anniversary of the Toronto Drug Strategy (TDS). The event brought together community workers, activists, policy makers and members of the public to discuss the work of the TDS over the past 10 years, and the future of drug policy in the City of Toronto.
Toronto City Councillor Joe Cressy opened the event stating that preventing harms associated with substance use has been the main goal of the TDS.
The introductory remarks noted the TDS’ work on reducing the lives taken through drug overdose. Former City Councillor Kyle Rae mentioned that in 2010, the City of Toronto became the first municipality to endorse the Vienna Declaration, which seeks to improve community health and safety by calling for the incorporation of scientific evidence into drug policy.
Kyle went back in time to when the area surrounding St. Stephen’s House in Toronto was “disruptive” due to drug activity in the area. Kyle went to Europe to see how similar situations were dealt with in different cities, and found that safe injection sites were particularly helpful in decreasing the number of break-ins, decreasing property violence, and improving health. After bringing these learnings back to Toronto, this issue moved forward on Toronto’s City Council and has played a significant role in Toronto’s drug policy work since then. City Councillor Gord Perks also added the importance of working with the “different hands that make our society” to end the stigma surrounding drug use.
Susan Shephard, Manager of the Toronto Drug Secretariat spoke next about the detailed work of the TDS. When discussing prevention initiatives, Susan noted Strengthening Families for Parents and Youth program, which is an initiative of Parent Action on Drugs. Other work of the Implementation Panel includes workshops for service providers on building youth resilience, workshops on teen brain development, a prescription drug drop-off day, the promotion of safer nightlife/partying, and other harm reduction services. The overall theme of the presentation was the reduction of stigma and discrimination towards drug users.
Next to speak was Zoe Todd, a Harm Reduction and Drug User Advocate from the South Riverdale Community Health Centre. Zoe’s presentation was by far the most moving, as she discussed her personal experiences losing people to drug overdose. Zoe delved deep into the policy context that she feels contributes to the stigma and eventual deaths of drug users, noting the criminalization of drugs as a main barrier to safer drug use. Zoe also emphasized that cuts to health care, gentrification, homophobia, inadequate housing, and racism all contribute to a loss of community, which eventually leads to drug overdose deaths.
I was personally shocked to learn that between 2003-2014, the City of Toronto saw a 41% increase in reported overdose deaths in Toronto. What causes this? Well, one reason is that when drug use is heavily criminalized, drug users are scared to call 911 when overdosing. Zoe advocated for Good Samaritan Legislation, which would allow drug users to call 911 without fear of being arrested for drug use or possession. Zoe brought the audience to tears when she powerfully closed her presentation with a moment of silence for those that have died due to drug overdose.
Senator Larry Campbell was the final speaker of the event, and also emphasized the need for a Good Samaritan Legislation, as well as drug policy that is based on science. He stated that in his ten minute walk to City Hall, he saw 10 homeless people, many of which were probably mentally ill, experiencing addictions and experiencing abuse. “This is unacceptable”, Larry exclaimed.
After the event, there was an information fair in the members’ lounge, where the audience was able to learn about the wide range of Toronto Drug Strategy community initiatives. It was a great opportunity for those in the drug policy and prevention community to learn about each other’s work and further reflect on the presentations made earlier.
Congratulations to the Toronto Drug Strategy for an impactful 10 years, and we look forward to seeing what the next 10 years will hold!