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Ottawa approves B.C.'s request to recriminalize drug use in public spaces

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The federal government approved B.C.'s request Tuesday to recriminalize the use of drugs in public spaces such as hospitals and parks.

B.C.'s Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said at an afternoon news conference the province's request was in response to "community concerns."

"What we've done is respond to what police have been asking for and to deal with public drug use and that's what the public has said they're concerned about," he said. "They expect their parks, their playgrounds, their streets to be safe areas, that they shouldn't have to put up with public drug use."

B.C. is a year into a three-year pilot project to decriminalize the possession of a small amount of certain illicit drugs, including heroin and cocaine. Citing safety concerns from public consumption of those drugs, the province asked the federal government late last month to make illicit drug use illegal in all public spaces, including in hospitals, on transit and in parks.

Exemptions in the Criminal Code for possession of small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use will still apply in private residences, certain health-care clinics, places where people are lawfully sheltering, and overdose prevention and drug checking sites.

Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jennifer Whiteside said those exemptions will help people using at home to "call for help without fear of being arrested."

"The vast majority of people who die from toxic drug poisoning are dying at home alone," she said, adding she's heard anecdotes about people who were too scared to call for help.

"The intention of decriminalization was never about providing space for unfettered public drug use. That was not the intention. The intention was to ensure that people felt that people should not be afraid to reach out for help wherever they were using."

Provincial statistics on where people are dying from toxic drugs showed, in 2023, 80 per cent of unregulated drug deaths happened inside. Forty-seven per cent were in private residents, while 33 per cent were in residences like social and supportive housing, single-room occupancy units, shelters and hotels.

While public possession – even of small amounts – is no longer exempted, Farnworth said the province is "working with police and First Nation partners right now to finalize guidance for police to only arrest for simple possession of illicit drugs in exceptional circumstances."

The changes approved by Health Canada allow police to compel people to move from an area, seize drugs "when necessary" or a arrest a person "if required," Farnworth said.

'Laps of police'

In spite of pushing for an end to decriminalization, Elenore Sturko, BC United shadow minister for mental health, addiction and recovery, said police aren't being given proper direction.

"Police now have the tool to move people on, but the problem is where are they moving people on to," she told reporters Tuesday afternoon. "The reality is for a lot of communities in B.C., this is simply putting this problem back onto the laps of police, with no way to actually guide people to help that they need."

During Tuesday's news conference, Farnworth said direction is coming for police forces.

Sturko introduced a motion to end the decriminalization pilot project last month, saying the government should instead focus on prioritizing access to free treatment and mental health services.

'Political points?'

Leading up to Tuesday's announcement, drug user advocates criticized B.C.'s request for changes to the exemptions.

Corey Ranger, president of the Harm Reduction Nurses Association, said he believes the request was an attempt to "score political points" ahead of a provincial election set for the fall.

"We should work toward solutions like housing and mental health supports and instead, they regressed to the only thing they know, which is punishment," he said.

Leslie McBain, the co-founder of Moms Stop the Harm, also said in April 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.

With files from The Canadian Press 

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