Ottawa approves B.C.’s ask for public drug use ban in decriminalization pilot

Click to play video: 'Drug decriminalization debate continues'
Drug decriminalization debate continues
There was another exchange over drug decriminalization in the house today that had premier David Eby calling out B.C. Conservatives for their political tactics. – May 6, 2024

The federal government is granting B.C.‘s request to once again ban the public use of illicit drugs, Mental Health and Addictions Minister Ya’ara Saks said on Parliament Hill on Tuesday.

“This is a health crisis, not a criminal one. That being said, communities need to be safe,” Saks said.

“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 services to support them so that we can save lives.”

Click to play video: 'Request to scale back decriminalization approved'
Request to scale back decriminalization approved

B.C. currently has a three-year Criminal Code exemption for personal possession of drugs like heroin, cocaine and methamphetamines – up to 2.5 grams – as well as public use.

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The goal has been to remove potential barriers from people seeking help by removing the fear of prosecution.

Saks said that this is a first of its kind pilot that is being run with B.C., so flexibility is essential in responding to issues that arise.

“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,” Saks said.

Prior to Saks’ announcement, Health Minister Mark Holland said the government took time to make a decision due to not wanting to make a choice that does “more harm than good.”

“This is a topic where all of us are just so saddened and heavy with the loss, and a lot of times when you’re in that state you almost get dysregulated and you want to act for the sake of acting because what’s happening is so painful,” Holland said on his way out of the weekly cabinet meeting.

“But if you’re not deliberative and you’re not careful, the action you take could end up doing more harm than good. So we have to be very careful when we take these actions that they’re rooted in evidence, they’re rooted in science and they’re going to make a difference that’s positive.”

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Holland said the government is looking at ways to better treat people deeply struggling with addiction, keep communities safe while addressing the drug crisis and ways to support people before treatment because “you can’t treat someone who’s no longer living.”

Click to play video: 'B.C. drug policy under the microscope'
B.C. drug policy under the microscope

B.C. Premier David Eby on April 26 announced that he asked the federal government to modify the province’s Criminal Code exemption to once again ban public drug use, including in parks and hospitals.

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At the start of 2023, B.C. began its three-year decriminalization pilot project as the province grapples with high rates of opioid addiction.

“Addiction is a health issue, it is not a criminal law issue, and that principle is what the entire decriminalization project was about. It was about removing the stigma for people struggling with addiction, preventing them potentially from reaching out to others to ask for help … for fear of arrest, for fear of a criminal record,” Eby said last month.

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“But that compassion, that concern for people who are struggling does not mean that anything goes. We still have expectations around safety, public spaces, in the coffee shop, on the bus, in the park, on the beach.”

B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth on Tuesday echoed the premier’s comments about maintaining safety for people in parks and beaches, as well as in hospitals and “the doorways of small businesses.”

“As everyone knows, our communities are facing big challenges,” he said.

Farnworth said as of Tuesday, 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 if necessary, or arrest the person if required.

“Today’s changes do not criminalize drug possession in a private residence or place where someone is legally sheltering, or at an overdose prevention site and drug checking locations,” he added.

Farnworth said that decriminalization was never about drug use in public.

“What we’ve seen is that communities expressed concern about that, the public expressed concern,” he said.

“That’s why we put in place the 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.”

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Click to play video: 'Pierre Poilievre ramps up attack on B.C.’s drug decriminalization pilot'
Pierre Poilievre ramps up attack on B.C.’s drug decriminalization pilot

A heated political debate

Since the request was sent to Ottawa, it’s been at the center of the debate around how best to address the addictions crisis.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has repeatedly asked when the government will recriminalize drugs during question period, saying that six British Columbians a day are dying due to the current drug policy.

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On Tuesday, Poilievre shifted his focus to a 2022 application from the City of Toronto to Health Canada seeking its own exemption asking if Trudeau plans to “impose” the same policy on Canada’s biggest city.

“[Trudeau] refuses to rule out repeating this disastrous experiment that killed 2,500 British Columbians. Because he strongly support decriminalization and if he got the chance he would do it all over again in Toronto, in Montreal and anywhere else,” Poilievre said.

Trudeau said the federal government only received the final completed request from the B.C. government on May 3, and it was approved on Monday.

On the issue of Toronto’s decriminalization request, both Trudeau and Saks said they would only work with the provinces on requests of this nature.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said on April 29th that he is against the Toronto application and would fight it “tooth and nail.”

In 2023, 2,551 drug deaths in B.C. are linked to the unregulated market – a record high for the province.

In the first three months of 2024, drug deaths are seeing a slight decline in that province compared to 2023.

“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 said Tuesday prior to question period.

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On broader concerns of drug use in parks that emerged during the decriminalization pilot, Saks said they are working to strike the right balance.

“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 then in case of public consumption, that there shouldn’t be disturbances to the public for those who are going about their daily lives,” Saks said.

Poilievre was kicked out of the House of Commons on April 30 for the day for unparliamentary language when he asked when the “wacko policy from a wacko prime minister” would be reversed. Under the rules of the House, you cannot use words or phrases that disparage another MP.

Click to play video: 'Why did Pierre Poilievre get kicked out of question period?'
Why did Pierre Poilievre get kicked out of question period?

B.C. NDP MP Peter Julian says that the change is a necessary part of tweaking the pilot project, and sees a silver lining in the death rate in B.C. seemingly plateauing. He notes it is still far too high.

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“The federal government has been slow to act. We continue to push the Liberals to take action, to declare a health emergency and to put the necessary resources in place, for example, for safe consumption,” Julian said.

On the tenor of the debate over the last week,  Julian accused Poilievre of distorting the facts on B.C.’s addictions and toxic drug crisis for political gain.

“I believe it’s been profound disinformation.  I’ve known Pierre Poilievre for many years, and I’ve never seen him distort something as badly and as grossly as the Conservatives have on this,” Julian said.

“The fact that in British Columbia, a result of the pilot project, the death rate has plateaued. It should be, I think a source of some comfort that we’re starting to find the solutions that we need to find. But the death rate is far too high.”

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