Feds approve B.C. amendment to recriminalize public drug use

The Federal Government has approved B.C.’s request to recriminalize illicit drug use in public spaces like parks, hospitals and public transit. Cecilia Hua reports.

B.C. has been granted an exemption to its decriminalization pilot program, re-criminalizing public drug use in the province.

Federal Addictions Minister Ya’ara Saks said Tuesday the exemption is effective immediately.

“We’ve moved forward with B.C. on this with a clear lens on public health and public safety because we know that we need to address the opioid crisis and the overdose deaths that we’re seeing as a public health issue. This is a health crisis, not a criminal one. That being said, communities need to be safe, people need to have confidence that, in their own communities, they can move about freely and feel comfortable and engaged, but we also want to make sure that those who are using drugs also have safety and have health-care service to support them so that we can save lives,” she explained.

“Let’s be clear, decriminalization is not the cause of the overdose deaths that we’re seeing — it is the illegal toxic drug supply that is killing people. It is a poisoned supply and it is highly dangerous.”

Saks says there needs to be a balance between public safety and public health when talking about pilot programs like the one in place in B.C.

“That means there needs to be sufficient health services in place, scaled out to meet people where they’re at, and also law enforcement to have the tools that they need to ensure that public safety is a priority, and in the case of public consumption, that there shouldn’t be disturbances to the public for those who are going about their daily lives,” the federal minister said.

“We want to make sure that we look at this from a human-centered lens, that we are compassionate, that we are collaborative, and that we are working with provincial jurisdictions to ensure that health and safety supports are both in place.”

The province announced at the end of April that it was working with the federal government to change the legality of drug possession in B.C., to give police power to “enforce against drug use in all public places, including hospitals, restaurants, transit, parks, and beaches.”

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

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

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B.C.’s decriminalization pilot project began on Jan. 31, 2023.

“We went into this with B.C. when the proposal went into place last year. We always said from the get-go we would be analyzing, we would be monitoring, we would be assessing as we go along, and also be flexible. This is the first time this has been done in Canada, there are a lot of lessons to be learned. What we know is health supports need to be readily available in a timely manner for those who are seeking help and when they’re using substances. That being said, B.C. has committed and continues to grow and scale out their health services and we’re supportive of that,” Saks said Tuesday.

Speaking just hours after the federal update, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said he would be sending a letter to police agencies in B.C. Tuesday to “inform them that these changes are now in effect.”

“When police are called to a scene where illegal and dangerous drug use is taking place, they will have the ability to compel a person to leave the area, seize the drugs when necessary, or arrest the person if required,” he said.

“I want to thank Health Canada for working as quickly as they could to respond to our request. We are working with police and First Nation partners right now to finalize guidance to police to only arrest for simple possession of illicit drugs in exceptional circumstances.”

Farnworth says the province has “listened to communities, listened to police in terms of dealing with public drug use.”

“Decriminalization was never about using drugs in public — ever. And what we’ve seen is communities have expressed concern about that, the public’s expressed concern, that’s why we put in place the legislation last fall, which has been before the courts, and these are the tools that police have been asking for to be able to deal with that issue of public drug use and that’s what’s being implemented,” he added.

B.C. Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jennifer Whiteside says the province is working to “ensure that we treat addiction as a public health issue, not a criminal justice one.”

“If someone is using drugs at home, they should be able to call for help without fear of being arrested,” she said. “While some have called for those critical protections to be removed, we know that is the wrong approach and that would put people at risk.”

Word of the federal approval came the same day the BC Coroners Service announced that at least 192 people in the province were killed by unregulated toxic drugs in March.

The latest number shows a decrease of around 11 per cent in the number of deaths when compared to March 2023, when 215 people were killed — approximately 6.9 people per day.

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