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Toronto Star

How Toronto went from a ‘war on drugs’ to pushing for their decriminalization

Dec 06, 2021 6:42:00 PM

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Over the last five years, Toronto has gone from a city known for incremental conservatism to one at the forefront of progressive drug policy — moving from a war-on-drugs mentality to approving decriminalization of small amounts of illegal drug possession.

On Monday, following advice from Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s top doctor, the board of health voted unanimously to ask the federal government to exempt all city residents from criminal charges for possessing small amounts of illicit drugs like crack cocaine and heroin. Following in Vancouver’s footsteps, Toronto would be only the second Canadian city to seek that status.

The city’s recent evolution has been spurred by a mounting death toll from overdoses, successful cannabis legalization and a shifting police perspective.

For those on the ground who have seen the consequences of a drug poisoning crisis still plaguing the city with overdoses and deaths, decriminalization is the logical next step in a deliberate approach to tackling addiction as a health-care issue, while also changing the over-policing of Black and Indigenous people.

In 2005, after the HIV/AIDS crisis, activists came together to form the Toronto Drug Strategy Advisory Committee — an odd mix of community users, health and justice workers, police officers and city officials who all sat at the same table

What resulted was the Toronto Drug Strategy, a plan to increase harm reduction and treatment options, reduce stigma and prevent overdoses, standing in stark contrast to the prevailing approach of treating drug addiction as a crime.

“This was the era when everybody believed in the war on drugs,” said Coun. Gord Perks, who now chairs the drug strategy implementation panel.

Perks said the panel’s work was bolstered by Vancouver’s Insite, the first supervised injection clinic in North America.

Following its opening in 2003, the agency running Insite won a landmark legal battle against former prime minister Stephen Harper’s government when in 2011 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled there should be a clear pathway for such sites to operate with federal permission.

That opened the door for Toronto and others to push ahead with its own supervised injection services.

In 2016, city council signed off on a plan to open three supervised injection sites across downtown — in South Riverdale, Yonge-Dundas Square and Parkdale.

Coun. Joe Cressy, who chairs the city’s board of health, said people in the downtown core witnessing the overdose crisis in their backyard “knew the status quo was broken” and were ready to support a new solution.

“The overdose crisis has reached a point where it’s impossible to ignore,” he said of the mindset.

But the process to apply and get approval for supervised injection sites from the health minister under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, as well as securing provincial funding, was slow.

Though the news finally came in June 2017 that both legal status and initial funding had been approved, workers needed time to get the specific sites up and running — and a crisis of drug poisoning was catching up to them.

That summer, officials’ fears were realized: fentanyl, the deadly drug sweeping through B.C., had arrived in Toronto and overdoses related to fentanyl-laced drugs were climbing.

In August, community volunteers pitched a large, makeshift, khaki-coloured tent on the edge of Moss Park in the downtown east to try to stop their friends, colleagues and neighbours from dying.

The trained harm reduction workers supervised people injecting drugs they brought themselves, while offering training on how to use life-saving naloxone, a drug that can reverse the effects of an overdose.

Despite the unsanctioned site not being allowed under federal law, the unofficial outpost in the park became a crucial life-saving service that was tacitly allowed to continue operating by police and city officials as deaths mounted.

On Nov. 8, 2017, Toronto Public Health itself opened the first legal supervised injection clinic with Ottawa’s permission at The Works building on Victoria Street downtown.

Just a year later, on Oct. 17, 2018, another big shift occurred when cannabis became legal in Canada and retail shops have now popped up all over the city.

Though there were fears about underage access to legal weed and that legalization would create heavy usage, early Statistics Canada data showed youth intake had not soared — just incremental increases in overall usage for the rest of the national population.

Research has long shown that a “war on drugs” that criminalizes those people — one that began across North America in the 1970s — has not had a significant impact on the supply or demand for drugs, a Toronto Public Health discussion paper published back in 2018 outlined.

According to that paper, criminalizing drug use has made drug users wary about accessing services and supports created criminal records that make it difficult to find work or shelter and forced risky behaviours that has led to infection, disease and overdose — while costing Canadian taxpayers some $2 billion annually to enforce.

Now there are nine supervised injection clinics from Parkdale to South Riverdale, operated by trained staff who supervise consumption and monitor clients for signs of overdose and infection, while offering in-house services and referrals for addiction treatment and other basic needs.

In a further development in the new approach to drug addiction, the federal government in August 2020 announced it was funding a $1.58-million pilot to provide a safe supply of opioid drugs through two of the supervised consumption sites in an attempt to combat the contamination of street drugs. There was little, if any, blow back.

There have been unlikely supporters of the progressive policies in play.

Mayor John Tory, in a statement to the Star, talked about knowing two families who lost young people to overdose in the past year and earlier witnessing a woman inject herself in the neck in the unsanctioned Moss Park tent.

“I had a strong urge to try to do more to help just from having met her.”

In the summer of 2020, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police — representing several forces responsible for policing drug users — shocked observers when it wholeheartedly agreed with decriminalization.

“Merely arresting individuals for simple possession of illicit drugs has proven to be ineffective,” said a report released by the association.

Last week, the city’s police chief Ramer wrote in support of Toronto Public Health’s decriminalization plan.

Before Monday’s vote, health board member Perks said he thinks of the people who didn’t live to see their drug strategy come to fruition, or the services offered that could have saved them.

Like Cindy Reardon, one of the community members on the original drug strategy committee, who died in 2017 before the first supervised injection site opened.

“Remarkable people, all of them,” Perks said.

Jennifer Pagliaro is a Toronto-based reporter covering city hall and municipal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @jpags

This surgeon put a noose on the door where his Black colleague was working. Five years later, he got his punishment: a four-month suspension

Dec 06, 2021 7:15:00 PM

alberta health services this surgeon put a noose on the door where his black colleague was working five years later he got his punishment a four month suspension 06 12 2021 canada news thestar dam content  https:

A surgeon who placed a noose on an operating room door where a Black colleague was working at a northern Alberta hospital has received a four-month suspension.

On Monday, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta said orthopedic surgeon Dr. Wynand Wessels engaged in conduct that “harms the integrity of the medical profession” when he fixed the noose to a door at the Grande Prairie Queen Elizabeth II Hospital in Grande Prairie in June 2016.

“Having reviewed all the evidence and the transcripts from the Hearing, the Tribunal feels that the sanction it has reached will primarily act as a general deterrent to the profession,” said a decision from a disciplinary tribunal.

“It believes it is highly unlikely that Dr. Wessels will ever act in such an unprofessional manner in the future.”

The disciplinary decision comes a year after a merits decision by the CPSA found the act was unprofessional but “not racially motived” — a finding that drew sharp criticism from advocates for Black medical professionals. The tribunal found “on the balance of probabilities” there wasn’t enough evidence to prove Wessels was motived by racism.

Dr. Oduche Onwuanyi, a Nigerian-born Black surgical assistant, was working in the room with five other people when the noose was hung on the door, according to the summary of testimony given by numerous parties.

Wessels, a white doctor originally from South Africa, placed it there but denied knowing the racist meaning of hanging a noose in such a way in North America.

Another doctor testified Wessels told him the noose was hung as a lasso as a symbol of trying to herd people to move in the same direction. Wessels later testified the noose was against “anyone who misbehaves.”

But Onwuanyi was assisting Wiens that day and Wessels told him the noose was for his assistant, according to Wiens’ testimony.

Onwuanyi said he took the noose a warning sign that “Blacks need to be cautious” and that “you are not entitled to any freedom of expression or thoughts or actions within these confines.”

Wiens, who testified everyone present felt the act was racist, said he saw Wessels hang the noose and took a photo of it and took it down; another doctor then filed a report. He said third doctor pulled Wessels aside and yelled at him.

“Dr. Wiens stated that he saw the noose as conveying a message which he interpreted as a racist act and a threat to the personal safety of the people working in the room that day,” reads the decision.

Wessels has been ordered to pay 75 per cent of the costs of the investigation and hearings into the incident.

The CPSA addressed the length of time it took to review the case Monday, saying it is reviewing its complaints process to “to identify and implement opportunities for improvement such as modernization and timeliness.”

“This review began before this case went to a hearing, however we are committed to using this opportunity to learn and continue to improve the work that we do,” Andrea Garland, acting director of communications for the college, said in an email.

Jeremy Nuttall is a Vancouver-based investigative reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @Nuttallreports

Superspreader event at restaurant leads to 42 positive COVID tests, warnings about new restrictions

Dec 06, 2021 1:13:00 PM

elite superspreader event in windsor essex sees at least 42 people test positive for covid 19 06 12 2021 canada news thestar dam content  https:

As COVID-19 cases climb in Ontario — with infections surging past third-wave peaks in some swaths of the province — experts warn that more health units may be forced to implement stricter public health measures to keep up with contact tracing and slow the virus’s spread.

The Windsor-Essex County Health Unit will on Friday reinstate capacity limits for bars and restaurants, and cap social gatherings, to curb soaring COVID infections in the region. Sunday’s announcement follows a superspreader event at a Kingsville restaurant that has infected at least 42 people, and warnings from Windsor-area hospitals already struggling to cope.

Windsor-Essex has the third highest COVID infection rate in the province after Algoma Public Health and Public Health Sudbury and Districts, which for weeks have been trying to tamp down cases. Twelve of Ontario’s 34 health units now have infection rates higher than 100 cases per million residents per day, according to the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table.

“We need to make sure the places that are challenged react swiftly,” said Dr. Peter Juni, an epidemiologist and the science table’s scientific director.

“The challenges now — with Omicron potentially in the mix — is that we need really efficient contact tracing, testing and management systems, and you can’t have that if you have the rate per one million that Algoma has, and that Windsor-Essex is approaching.

“It’s the right thing to do now to impose public health measures in those places.”

On Monday, the province logged 887 new COVID cases, pushing the seven-day average up to 940 cases per day — the highest since June and surpassing the previous fourth-wave peak in October.

While infection rates in the Greater Toronto Area largely remain stable, Juni said that could change quickly with the arrival of Omicron, the new variant of concern that initial reports suggest is more transmissible than Delta, the dominant strain in the province.

“We need to get more disciplined; get more people vaccinated, get more people boosters, and make sure that places like Windsor, Algoma, Sudbury and Thunder Bay — especially if they start to see Omicron outbreaks — have enough capacity to do contact tracing, testing and management,” Juni said. “We want to push back the dominance of Omicron as long as we can; every week we can push it back counts.”

The Middlesex-London Health Unit on Monday announced it is investigating a cluster of COVID cases that likely involve the Omicron variant, though officials are still waiting for the results of whole genomic sequencing. At least 30 cases are already associated with the outbreak, including links to schools and child-care centres, and officials said they expect more than 100 high-risk close contacts to emerge.

On Friday, the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit notified residents about a COVID exposure at Elite Restaurant at 20-22 Main St. W. in Kingsville from Nov. 18 to Dec. 2. Officials say at least 42 people have tested positive in the large outbreak.

“In general, we’re reluctant to highlight any one institution or one enterprise,” said Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, medical officer of health for the health unit, during a Monday press conference. “But in this particular case it has some important public health implications. Forty-two of approximately 75 attendees at that one social gathering tested positive.”

The health unit said it has asked all local employers to carefully screen all staff because of the increased risk to the local community in the Kingsville and Leamington areas.

“There’s an immense risk that this outbreak could spread beyond the restaurant community,” said Nesathurai.

According to the restaurant’s manager, Bimi Rexhepi, the outbreak can be linked back to a Nov. 18 birthday party held in a private dining room upstairs.

The nine-year old establishment, which serves primarily steak and seafood, is now closed until the health unit finishes its investigation, Rexhepi said, adding he has yet to be provided with a reopening date.

Like all other guests, those attending the party were checked for their proof of vaccination upon arrival as part of the restaurant’s safety protocols, according to Rexhepi. However, at least one of the party-goers is said to have faked their status, he added. He wouldn’t say where he heard that.

“We are doing the right things,” he said, noting the private dining room was under capacity. “But they found a way to get in.”

Those who dined on the lower floor of the restaurant have not tested positive, according to Rexhepi, who is asking for transparency from guests.

The local health unit has not confirmed this information, saying it will not release further updates on the outbreak for privacy reasons.

However, the manager of communications did note there are currently no reported cases of the Omicron variant in Windsor-Essex County.

Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, said figuring out how to operate restaurants safely during the pandemic has been “a perplexing problem.”

“We want them open. We can’t have them closed forever. We ought to be able to do it safely, with vaccine mandates, except we’re not.

“I think what happened in Windsor-Essex could happen anywhere — and is happening in other places, but we’re not necessarily noticing.”

If contact tracing fails or can’t keep up in hard-hit regions, COVID cases connected to restaurants could be missed, said Furness, noting that restaurants create “fantastic opportunities” for COVID to spread because many people are “sharing air with no standards for ventilation or air filtration.”

Capacity limits in bars and restaurants help by convincing more people to stay home, and by creating fewer opportunities for a potential exposure, said Furness. But, he added, limiting a restaurant to 50 per cent occupancy doesn’t prevent the SARS-CoV-2 virus from spreading in the air.

“If someone else in the restaurant has COVID, who is contagious, it doesn’t matter what the capacity limit is. You are not going to be protected from them.”

In its Sunday news release, Windsor-Essex public health detailed a number of restrictions, including limiting social gatherings to 10 people indoors and 25 outdoors, and limiting indoor capacity for bars and restaurants to 50 per cent.

The local health unit said it’s concerned cases may reach levels similar to those seen during the same time last year, before families begin to gather for the holiday season.

On Friday, Windsor-Essex hospitals, along with local EMS and public health, issued a joint statement, warning of a strain on hospital capacity because of a recent surge in both COVID-19 cases and patients with respiratory issues.

The statement stated there are “intensifying capacity pressures across the acute care system in our region,” like significant concerns over bed capacity, and longer wait times for non-emergency scenarios.

In a Monday statement to the Star, David Musyj, president and CEO of Windsor Regional Hospital, said hospital leaders are worried about the community spread of COVID and are concerned about their ability to continue all hospital services, including elective surgeries, at their current rate unless capacity pressures are reduced.

“Typically, we do not encounter this level of pressure until January,” Musyj said.

Anthony Dale, president and CEO of the Ontario Hospital Association, said while the rate of COVID hospitalizations remains relatively stable across the province, the health system continues to experience sustained pressures, many of which have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

In southwestern Ontario, including the Windsor-Essex region, Dale pointed to the “worsening problem” with COVID community spread and hospitalizations. On Sunday, 14 new patients with COVID-related critical illness were admitted to provincial ICUs — 10 of those cases were admitted in the southwest region, he said.

“There’s a very heavy concentration of hospitalizations in that region. You can easily see why hospitals in the Windsor-Essex area have communicated about their capacity limitations and why public health officials in that area have announced protections for the region.”

Megan Ogilvie is a Toronto-based health reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @megan_ogilvie

Ivy Mak is a team editor on the Star's breaking news desk, based in Toronto. Reach her via email:

Irelyne Lavery is a Toronto-based staff reporter for the Star. Reach her via email:

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