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B.C. to ban drug use in public spaces, including inside hospitals

Province working with feds to make changes to legality of possession
B.C. Premier David Eby speaks during an announcement in Delta, B.C., on Monday, March 18, 2024. The provincial government announced Friday (April 26) that it would be moving to band drug use in more public spaces, specifically inside hospitals, on transit and in parks. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

After months of pressure from the public, police and parts of the political opposition, the B.C. NDP government is asking the federal government to make illicit drug use illegal in all public spaces including parks, hospitals and on transit.

Premier David Eby said Friday (April 26) in Vancouver that this request marks a “significant” change to the first-of-its-kind exemption behind decriminalization. It currently prohibits police from arresting, charging or seizing adults in possession of up to 2.5 grams of heroin, cocaine, crack, crystal meth, MDMA or fentanyl. The three-year program started on Jan. 31, 2023 after Ottawa had issued the exemption in May 2022 following B.C.’s initial request in November 2021.

The pilot launched after years of calls by advocates and experts to decriminalize personal possession of drugs in efforts to reduce stigma and those using alone.

READ MORE: Possession of 2.5 grams of illicit drugs to be decriminalized in B.C.

Proposed adjustments to the legality of drug possession in B.C. would not re-criminalize possession in private residences, overdose prevention sites, drug-checking locations or other places where individuals are legally sheltering. But the changes will give police power to enforce drug use restrictions in all public spaces, the province says.

Police will receive “guidance” to only arrest for simple possession of illicit drugs in “exceptional circumstances.” The government says it will be up to police to use their discretion, but drug use is a health issue and not a criminal justice issue.

The province says that when police are called to a scene where “illegal and dangerous drug use” is taking place, officers will “have the ability to compel the person to leave the area, seize the drugs when necessary, or arrest the person, if required.”

Eby said B.C. has asked for the change because government legislation limiting public consumption remains held up in the courts and because of the “escalating situation on the ground” when it comes to drug use in hospitals, restaurants and other places likes beaches and parks.

Eby said he shares with British Columbians their concern that “hospitals, restaurants (and) communities need to be safe.” When asked if this request represents an admission that decriminalization failed, he said it’s a necessary correction to give police the tools they need,.

READ MORE: B.C. United says health authority actively supporting hospital drug use

READ MORE: Ending decriminalization won’t end ‘our fight’ to ‘save people’ says B.C. United

He acknowledged that government should have put in place the necessary safeguards before decriminalization.

“We are giving police tools they need to address this issue,” he added. “At the same time, our government, the police and all British Columbians recognize that the people who are struggling with addictions are people that we love and sometimes tough love is need.”

It is not clear though when these proposed changes would come into effect. Eby said his government has been working with the federal government for “a little bit” on the request, adding B.C. formally filed it today.

“I believe we have a strong federal partner in this and I hope to see these changes as soon as possible,” he said.

Eby said later that if it were up to him the requested changes “would be in effect today, and frankly, they would have been in effect a while ago.

“But Health Canada is going to have to do their due diligence on this,” he said. “We don’t have a timeline yet from them. But we have a commitment to treat this with urgency and to get these changes into place.”

The requested change marks not only a significant departure from the initial terms of decriminalization, but also raises the question of how long B.C. sticks with the experiment, even under its revised form.

Eby signalled that B.C. will stick with decriminalization for now.

“We have two goals here,” he said. “We have the goal of … safe communities and giving people a chance to get into treatment, to call for help when they need,” he said. “We are trying to balance those. There will inevitably be issues that we need to address going forward.”

Fiona Wilson, deputy chief of the Vancouver Police Department and president of the British Columbia Association of Chiefs of Police, welcomed the changes.

“We have been vocal about our concerns raised about open drugs use and we welcome the new restrictions announced today, particularly for places where children, youth and families are present,” she said. “We do not want to stigmatize people who struggle with drug addiction.”

B.C.’s request to the federal government comes as a court hears a constitutional challenge to B.C.’s Restricting Public Consumption of Illegal Substances Act. While the legislation passed last fall, an injunction issued in December 2023 and confirmed in March 2024 means it has not yet come into effect, much to chagrin of the provincial government.

While B.C.’s request to Ottawa would make drug consumption illegal in all public spaces, its effect would run counter to the ruling that rendered the provincial legislation in the first place.

B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson said in his December ruling that legislation “poses a sufficiently high probability of irreparable harm” by pushing drug users into places where it will be less safe to consume drugs.

“It is apparent that public consumption and consuming drugs in the company of others is oftentimes the safest, healthiest, and/or only available option for an individual, given a dire lack of supervised consumption services, indoor locations to consume drugs, and housing,” Hinkson said.

Eby acknowledged that B.C. could be inviting another legal challenge.

“However, in order for it to be successful, the court would have to find that the entire Controlled Drugs and Substances Act at the federal level was unconstitutional,” he said. “We think it’s a very low risk. But there is still a risk, obviously.”

Government paired Friday’s announcement with announcing a new policy prohibiting street-drug possession or use in hospitals designed to improving safety and security for other patients, visitors and health-care workers.

When patients are admitted, they will be asked if they experience any substance-use challenges. They will then receive support and medical oversight for addiction care to ensure people with addictions receive personalized care while being treated in hospital.

Government officials said they are working with health authorities, health professionals and unions to roll out the changes, promising changes starting Monday. But they also acknowledged that the changes will be a work in progress.

Government also announced additional treatment measures.

Since the province declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency in 2016, more than 14,000 people have fatally overdosed in B.C.