B.C. is now five weeks into its three-year drug decriminalization trial.
The decriminalization trial aims to tackle stigma and address the overdose crisis by allowing adults to carry up to 2.5 grams of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA.
The provincial change of approach has prompted the District of Sicamous to consider a bylaw that would ban drug use in public parks.
However, Interior Health is raising concerns about the health impacts of the proposed bylaw.
Sicamous’ mayor Colleen Anderson said the municipality’s intent in looking at banning drug use in public parks is to ensure the safety of the community.
“We keep our children safe, we don’t take them to spaces where they witness that or they are part of that environment. We want to keep them away from that as much as possible. We don’t want to normalize that with our children,” Anderson said.
However, the health authority has concerns bylaws like the one proposed in Sicamous could undermine the purpose of decriminalization.
In a letter to the municipality, medical health officer Dr. Jonathan Malo said “implementing by-laws that prohibit public consumption of illicit drugs and fining individuals who choose to do so…re-inforces stigma associated with drug use, and therefore actually counter the intended impacts of decriminalization.
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“Such enforcement activities may encourage individuals to use drugs alone or out of view, thereby increasing the risk of death due to the toxic drug supply.”
But Sicamous’ mayor doesn’t believe the bylaw would undermine decriminalization.
Anderson points out that the provincial decriminalization rules still criminalize drug use at kids’ schools but beaches in the summer can have just as many children on site.
The mayor suggests drug use at beach parks is perhaps something the province has overlooked.
However, Interior Health medical health officer Dr. Carol Fenton is asking the public to remember people who use drugs are not inherently dangerous.
“Everyone knows and loves people who use drugs and people who use drugs don’t want to inflict harm on others either. I don’t expect any of that will change with decriminalization,” said Fenton.
“If people are concerned about visible drug use or drug paraphernalia it is really important to check in and say ‘Does my community have a safe place for drug users to go and do their drugs in an appropriate place that is away from the park? and what I am talking about is supervised consumption or overdose prevention sites.”
Sicamous and the surrounding Shuswap region do not have supervised consumption or overdose prevention sites.
Mayor Anderson noted that was something that has come up in the council’s discussion with Interior Health.
“Right now I think we are definitely downloading the supervision of this to residents that have no idea what to do in an emergency,” Anderson said.
Asked if there were any plans to create a safe consumption over overdose prevention site in Sicamous or the surrounding region, Fenton said she would “love to support the development of an overdose prevention site in Sicamous and will endeavour to follow up with city council on that.”
Instead of passing a bylaw, the health authority is suggesting the district take a wait-and-see approach, and hold off on any policy change for six months.
“My understanding is that public drug use and drug use in parks is not currently a problem in Sicamous and historically has not been a problem. From the evidence around decriminalization we don’t expect that it will become a problem,” said Fenton.
“So waiting six months and seeing whether or not things do change and there is a need for a bylaw is better than passing something that has potential harms when there isn’t a clear need for it.”
However, Sicamous’ mayor argues there is no guarantee public drug use won’t become an issue in her community.
“I just want to make sure that our community and our children are protected and six months, a summer of this, is a summer too many,” said Anderson.
Sicamous council is still discussing how to move forward with the proposed bylaw which may include narrowing the list of parks where drug use is banned.
The district said if the bylaw change is made council will likely also create a fine similar to the fines for drinking or smoking in parks.
“However, as always, tickets are at the discretion of our bylaw enforcement officer. In his experience, a simple conversation with those who are violating a bylaw can go a long way,” the district’s deputy corporate officer said in an email.
Sicamous said unpaid fines can go to collections but the municipality would not seek to have anyone incarcerated over nonpayment.