B.C. moves to further restrict public drug use

The B.C. government is pushing to make drug use illegal in all public places. This is a major policy shift for the province.

Amid ongoing conversations around decriminalization in B.C., the province is working to introduce new restrictions around where drug use will be permitted.

The province says it’s working with the federal government to change the legality of drug possession in B.C., which will give police power to “enforce against drug use in all public places, including hospitals, restaurants, transit, parks, and beaches.”

The B.C. government explains it is bringing in “several new measures” which will focus on “providing police with more tools to address public safety while offering support and access to treatment for people living with addictions.”

“Guidance will be given to police to only arrest for simple possession of illicit drugs in exceptional circumstances,” the B.C. government explained Friday. “When police are called to a scene where illegal and dangerous drug use is taking place, they will have the ability to compel the person to leave the area, seize the drugs when necessary or arrest the person, if required.”

The measures include a “single policy prohibiting” the use and possession of street drugs in hospitals. The province says enforcement will be increased, as will supports to help patients with addiction and encourage treatment and recovery. When a patient is admitted to a hospital in B.C., the provincial government says they will be asked if they are dealing with any substance-use issues, which will then dictate supports and medical oversight to help them with care during their treatment.

The province is stressing that these measures do not recriminalize drug possession in a private homes or place where someone is legally sheltering. Drug possession will also not be criminalized at overdose prevention sites and drug checking locations.

The topic of public drug use has been ongoing, particularly since the three-year decriminalization pilot program began in B.C. on Jan. 31, 2023.

Under the program, drug use is still prohibited in certain spaces, such as school grounds.

Last year, the province introduced legislation to further restrict where drugs could be used in public.

The Restricting Public Consumption of Illegal Substances Act was passed by the legislature in November, allowing fines and imprisonment for people who refuse to comply with police orders not to consume drugs in certain public places, including parks, beaches, and sports fields.

However, in December, the B.C. Supreme Court blocked new laws against public consumption of illegal substances. The ruling in favour of the Harm Reduction Nurses Association imposed a temporary injunction, with the judge saying “irreparable harm will be caused” if the laws came into force.

“Keeping people safe is our highest priority. While we are caring and compassionate for those struggling with addiction, we do not accept street disorder that makes communities feel unsafe,” Premier David Eby said Friday. “We’re taking action to make sure police have the tools they need to ensure safe and comfortable communities for everyone as we expand treatment options so people can stay alive and get better.”

B.C. declared a public health emergency in April 2016. Since then, more than 14,000 have been killed by the illicit drug supply in this province.

Advocates for drug users have pushed back against calls for the decriminalization program to be rolled back, saying the measure is only one part of the effort to keep people alive.

In addition to the changes to public drug use, the province says it is expanding access to treatment for those struggling with addiction.

The government says this includes increasing access to and the availability of opioid-agonist treatment (OAT), a treatment for people with an opioid-use disorder, through a province-wide virtual system; integrating addictions services with health care, housing, and related services; and working with experts to develop ways that prescribed alternatives can be tracked to prevent diversion.

“People across the country are dying from poisoned drugs and B.C. is no exception,” said Jennifer Whiteside, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions. “Addiction is a health-care issue, not a criminal one, and we’re going to keep doing everything we can to save lives and connect people to treatment.”

Eby says he shares “the concerns that so many British Columbians have about the public drug use that they’re seeing in their communities.”

According to the premier, a combination of factors led to the decision that changes needed to be made, following the BC Supreme Court decision to grant an injunction around B.C.’s proposed restrictions last year.

He says the purpose of decriminalization is to remove the stigma for people struggling with addiction, potentially preventing them from reaching out for support or admit that they are struggling, for fear of being arrested.

Vancouver Police Deputy Chief Const. Fiona Wilson, who spoke on behalf of policing leadership in B.C. Friday, said decriminalization needs to be part of a “broader strategy to address the tragic consequences of the drug crisis.”

“Treatment, education, prevention, and enforcement against predatory organized crime groups are equally as important. We also understand that addiction is a complex issue that requires a compassionate and multifaceted approach,” she told reporters.

“The B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police has expressed significant concern with the issue of public consumption of illicit drugs. This concern is based on a fundamental belief in the importance of finding a balance between ensuring people who use drugs are not unnecessarily criminalized, while all members in communities across this province feel safe — at the beach, at a bus shelter, in parks, while simply walking down the street, and in places such as restaurants and in hospitals.”

The BC United Critic for Mental Health, Addictions, and Recovery says Friday’s announcement highlights the failure of the decriminalization pilot, but she worries it pushes the problem over to police.

“Asking police to simply move people on from areas where their drug use is… does not compel people into treatment or help guide people towards services, and in most cases, those services don’t exist,” said Elenore Sturko, BC United MLA for Surrey South.

But one advocate for drugs users says drug use was already restricted in certain areas, and the problem isn’t public drug use — it’s housing.

“What this is going to do is force people back into the alleys,” said Garth Mullins, member of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users and host of the Crackdown podcast.

“Decriminalization was an invitation for use to come out, into the public, from the alleys, from the shadows, and this will force us back there, and that’s where people die in greater numbers.”

It’s not clear when the ban on public drug use will take effect, as it depends on if and when Health Canada makes the needed amendment.

“I hope to see these changes as soon as possible,” Eby said.

With files from Monika Gul.

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