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B.C. seeks ban on public drug use, dialing back decriminalization

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The B.C. NDP has asked the federal government to recriminalize public drug use, marking a major shift in the province's approach to addressing the deadly overdose crisis.

Officials requested the update to B.C.'s exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act on Friday, seeking increased power for police to crack down on drug consumption almost anywhere in public – including in parks and on buses.

Speaking at a news conference, Premier David Eby stressed that the goal of the province's decriminalization pilot – to reduce stigma around drug use and encourage people with substance abuse issues to seek help – remains a priority for his government, despite the dramatically dialed back approach.

"Our goal was to save lives," Eby said. "But that compassion, that concern for people who are struggling does not mean anything goes."

The premier said he has already discussed the request with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and that he was assured the federal government will support the changes.

There would be exceptions allowing people to use illicit substances in private homes, legal shelters and overdose prevention sites, but police would be able to force drug users to leave public areas – and also to seize their drugs and arrest them, at the officers' discretion.

In a news release, the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General said police will be instructed to "only arrest for simple possession of illicit drugs in exceptional circumstances."

"There's no question that criminalizing drug use costs all of us," Eby said. "It costs threats to lives, it costs money for prosecutions, and it doesn’t make us safer. But police do need the tools to address extraordinary circumstances where people are compromising public safety through their drug use."

Disappointment from advocates

Leslie McBain, the co-founder of Moms Stop the Harm, said she was disappointed with the province’s decision to ask Health Canada to alter the exemption.

“It is targeting the most vulnerable in our culture,” she said. “It is also the walking back of the enthusiasm that we heard from government when decriminalization was put in place.”

McBain said she would have liked to have seen the province focus on increasing overdose prevention sites, particularly in rural parts of the province, something she believes would help reduce public drug use. 

"If we had an adequate number of these facilities, people could use them and stay out of the public eye and they would not be forced into dark corners," she said.

Addressing drug use in hospitals

The province also announced plans to address concerns raised by some health-care professionals, including the B.C. Nurses' Union, around drug use in hospital settings.

Going forward, Eby said there will be "no tolerance" for illicit drugs in hospitals outside of "medically supervised addiction treatment areas."

Hospital staff will not search patients for drugs, but will instead seek co-operation – and store substances for users who voluntarily agree to turn them over.

"It's important to recognize that a number of patients in our hospitals go there struggling with serious addiction issues. They need health care just like everybody else," Eby said. "This does not mean that we compromise the safety of health professionals or other patients in hospital."

The BCNU issued a statement following the announcement calling the updated approach a "positive first step in addressing the complex issue of addictions management."

"It is imperative that the occupational health and safety of nurses, health-care staff and patients remains a top priority for government and health employers while meeting the needs of individuals struggling with addiction," the statement said, adding that the union "continues to advocate for harm-reduction measures."

Legal challenge ongoing

The NDP introduced legislation last fall to restrict drug use in certain public areas, including playgrounds, but the law was quickly challenged by the Harm Reduction Nurses Association over concerns that it would drive more drug users to take their substances alone indoors, putting them at much greater risk of dying of an overdose.

An injunction against the legislation was granted in B.C. Supreme Court in December, then upheld at the B.C. Court of Appeals last month.

The updated Health Canada exemption requested Friday would appear to side-step that court challenge, while going much further than the provincial legislation in terms of restricting public drug use.

"The resolution of that court issue is potentially more than a year down the road and we cannot afford to wait. We need to act now," Eby said.

In a news release Friday, the Harm Reduction Nurses Association said the decision will increase the death toll from toxic drugs.

DJ Larkin, co-counsel for HRNA and the executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, said the ban will push people who use drugs out of sight, to covert and isolated use.

"We don’t want any more families to have to grieve their loved ones," Larkin said. "We want effective solutions. And we know that criminalization is no solution. This is a step back."

Officials also promised new resources for people struggling with addiction, including a virtual clinic for those seeking opioid agonist therapies – such as methadone – to help them wean off illicit drugs.

The program will be available at pharmacies across the province, reducing treatment barriers for people in smaller communities with fewer resources, Eby said.

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