‘Set up for more deaths’: Advocate decries B.C.’s new bill restricting public drug use

Click to play video: 'Reaction to increased restrictions to possession and use of illegal drugs'
Reaction to increased restrictions to possession and use of illegal drugs
There is a wide range of reactions to the B.C. government's decision to expand the list of places where the possession and use of illegal drugs will be restricted, as part of its drug decriminalization experiment. Christa Dao reports – Oct 5, 2023

Some advocates for people who use drugs are decrying new proposed legislation in B.C. that if passed, would further restrict the public spaces where illegal drugs can be consumed.

On Thursday, the New Democrats introduced a new bill to ban drug use at beaches, sports fields and parks, as well as within six metres of a bus stop or the entrance to a business or residence.

The proposal adds to a previous restriction put forth by the province that prohibits drug use within 15 metres of playgrounds, spray and wading pools, and skate parks — all in the midst of B.C.’s decriminalization pilot program.

“This is a set up for more deaths, definitely, because it’s a proven fact that using alone there’s a much more chance of you not surviving,” said David Hann, who sits on the board of directors for VANDU, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users.

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“It covers almost all public space. We’ve always advocated for public space is public space. I wish we’d been able to maybe in consultation with the government about their proposed legislation.”

Click to play video: 'Public drug use controversy continues'
Public drug use controversy continues

British Columbia is more than eight months into its unprecedented decriminalization experiment — an exemption to the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act that took effect on Jan. 31. It allows adults to possess 2.5 grams or less of certain drugs — opioids, crack, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA — for personal use.

Since then, however, multiple B.C. municipalities have proposed, passed or pondered bylaws to restrict drug use in certain public spaces, particularly those frequented by seniors and children. At the Union of BC Municipalities Convention in Vancouver last week, many mayors called for more support amid heightened safety concerns about public drug use.

While Thursday’s bill would give police authority to direct users to cease their activities and leave a banned area — ostensibly to use in a more appropriate location, like an overdose prevention site — both Premier David Eby and Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth have said the legislation’s purpose is not to undermine decriminalization or result in more arrests.

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“Our compassion, our understanding that that system (of criminalization) doesn’t work to address addiction issues does not mean that we need to tolerate public drug use in our communities, especially in areas used by kids,” Eby said.

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“It never was about and it cannot be about using hard drugs wherever you like.”

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UBCM tackles hot-button issues

Eby and Farnworth were challenged Thursday, however, about a lack of overdose prevention sites outside major cities in B.C., as well as a lack of sites that permit inhalation — the method of consumption responsible for the most fatalities, according to the chief coroner.

The Ministry of Mental Health and Addiction has confirmed, that of 47 overdose prevention sites in B.C., only 19 provide the option to smoke drugs.

“I think we’re on the same page a lot but at the same time there’s woefully a lot of things that the government hasn’t done to make it so that there isn’t public use, like having enough inhalation sites,” Hann told Global News.

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“We wish they could use a little political bravery and step up and do their work.”

VANDU doesn’t support drug use anywhere near children, he added, and the organization said part of its education work, particularly for new drug users, is to ensure all are “good citizens” as they are part of the community too.

Click to play video: 'UBCM tackles hot-button issues'
UBCM tackles hot-button issues

In the Downtown Eastside, a neighbourhood heavily impacted by the toxic supply crisis, some supported the legislation.

Jordan Eng, president of the Vancouver Chinatown Business Improvement Association, called it a “great news story” that has been a “long time coming.”

“Small businesses are the backbone of our city and we’re just normal people trying to make a living, feeding mouths and trying to be part of the community,” he said.

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“Businesses not only in Chinatown but across the downtown peninsula have a really tough time with drug use in front of their stores.”

Eng said public spaces ought to feel safe for all residents.

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New rules on drug possession come into effect

Guy Felicella, who battled addiction in the Downtown Eastside for decades, agreed with Hann: if the province wants to ban drug use in more public outdoor spaces, it needs to address the shortage of inhalation spaces.

Some of the locations the bill would ban, he added, may have been added to the list based on fear or rhetoric. He said he hasn’t observed much illicit drug use at the beach, for example.

“I think that a lot of the attention on facilities that were implemented in the amendment — drug users don’t really go there, especially in the Lower Mainland,” the mental health and addictions advocate told 980 CKNW’s The Jill Bennet Show.

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He acknowledged there is some use outside storefronts and in select parks, and said he supports safe communities for everybody, but worries about varying implementation across B.C., depending on the municipality or police force.

“The unfortunate reality in today’s day in age is that (supervised consumption sites) don’t exist in specific areas, so it gets kind of complicated for where people are going to use. I guess people who use these substances have to really have a clear understanding of where it is they can use.”

Felicella emphasized the importance of police redirecting users to other locations where they may use. This is especially important for folks who are unhoused, he added.

“Is it decriminalization for people who have proper places to use them, such as a home, and is it recriminalizing people who don’t have a place to use these substances?” he asked.

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“The government needs to actually address the issues of people smoking these substances that people can have that place to go … it’s progressive with the police too, they’re not supposed to just take people’s substances if they are using in areas they’re not allowed to. I think police already know they can’t arrest their way out of making any changes.”

The province has stated that the new bill would bring hard drug use in line with current rules for smoking, vaping and using cannabis.

— with files from Christa Dao

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