(Editor's Note: The final paragraph in this column has been changed from an earlier version to clarify the province's approach to municipalities.)
Two major B.C. municipalities are set to ban open drug use in public places, a move that sparked a heated debate at the legislature this week about whether the province’s new decriminalization program is worsening disorder on city streets.
Kamloops and Campbell River have set in motion new bylaws that will prohibit drug use at parks, beaches and playgrounds in the same way as smoking and consuming alcohol.
Councillors in Kamloops voted last week to have staff prepare the new bylaw for adoption, while the mayor of Campbell River says his municipality is expected to vote to pass its initiative next week.
“For me personally, I have a six-year-old granddaughter, and I don’t think she should have to go to a local farmer’s market and watch someone potentially with a needle doing heroin sitting on a bench in our downtown,” said mayor Kermit Dahl.
“I think we should be protecting our kids from thinking in some way it is normal or acceptable.”
B.C. in late January started a three-year pilot program that decriminalizes personal possession of small amounts of illicit drugs like cocaine, heroin and fentanyl, to try and encourage users to seek help during a worsening toxic drug crisis that has killed almost 12,000 people since 2016.
But B.C. has also been in the grips of a public safety crisis this year, as random attacks, violence, vandalism and street disorder increased in urban centres across the province. Some of that is fuelled by those feeding addictions, which in turn has led to more visible signs of drug use and homelessness.
Whether decriminalization is connected to the rising visible drug use on city streets remains a topic of hot debate at the legislature. But it is clearly causing some municipalities to take more direct action.
“It’s like daily, multiple times daily, people are overdosing,” said Dahl. “Nothing is changing. None of the stuff that really needs to be addressed is being addressed.”
Opposition BC United leader Kevin Falcon seems to sense the public mood shifting away from an acceptance of open drug use, amid fear over worsening public safety.
Falcon this week accused the NDP government of a “reckless” pursuit of decriminalization, by failing to accompany it with enough addictions treatment and police resources.
“While simple activities like having a beer at your local public park or using a plastic straw are tightly regulated, the premier's policy allows completely uncontrolled consumption of lethal drugs like crystal meth, crack cocaine and fentanyl,” Falcon told the legislature Wednesday.
“Neighbourhoods, as a result, are being plagued by discarded drugs and drug paraphernalia, forcing families to worry about their children stumbling upon needles in parks, beaches and playgrounds.”
Falcon said he supports municipalities that want to craft their own bylaws limiting public drug use.
But to do so, both Kamloops and Campbell River have had to face off against opposition by local public health officials, who have argued that banishing drug users from public spaces during a toxic drug crisis will add to the stigma that forces them to use alone and be more susceptible to a fatal overdose.
Campbell River abandoned its first attempt at a public drug use bylaw in February, after refusing to accept a letter or input from an Island Health medical health officer.
At first, municipalities assumed they had to get permission from local health officials, and ultimately the Minister of Health, to enact bylaws related to drug use. But they have recently discovered that if they use a nuisance bylaw instead, then they can ban public drug use without requiring permission from health officials.
Dahl said he’s found it frustrating to be accused of furthering stigma against drug users.
“The federal government has said you weren’t allowed to use drugs in the airport, or certain other areas, and nobody said anything about stigma,” said Dahl. “But as soon as we say we don’t think it should be done in public parks paid for by taxpayers, or where kids would be, then the word stigma comes up.”
Falcon said the government is using the health authorities to pressure municipalities, as it seeks to protect its decriminalization initiative.
The NDP government’s response has been to argue that decriminalization is only one part of a larger suite of measures that are an attempt to stem the rising number of overdose deaths.
“In the context of an unrelenting public health emergency that is the toxic drug crisis, we have to do all of the things at the same time,” said Mental Health and Addictions Minister Jennifer Whiteside.
“We are morally bound, ethically bound, to ensure that we work to keep people alive, while we can connect them to supports and services.”
B.C. chief coroner Lisa Lapointe reported this week almost 600 deaths in the first three months of the year, which Lapointe called “a crisis of incomprehensible scale.”
The number of deaths is appalling. Yet at the same time, the public finds itself upset at stories like the one that emerged in Nanaimo this week in which a five-year-old girl found a bag of toxic fentanyl on a school playground, took it home and was about to open it before her mother noticed and stopped her.
Falcon drew a direct line between the Nanaimo girl and government’s decriminalization efforts. And nobody from the NDP government was able to counter it effectively this week.
“I just cannot understand why the government cannot just make it clear that province wide, we're going to have a policy that says you do not get to do open drug use in parks, playgrounds and beaches,” said Falcon.
It sounds simple. And it passes the political sniff test, in that if you went out on the street and asked random people “do you think drugs should be used in public spaces like parks and beaches?” almost all of them would likely say no.
Perhaps that’s why the NDP government is having such difficulty on the issue — as it encourages municipalities to consult public health officials to find more productive solutions. And it’s almost assuredly why we haven’t heard the end of the issue — both from municipalities themselves, and from the government’s political opponents at the legislature.
Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio. [email protected]