Canada Re-Criminalizes Public Drug Use in British Columbia

The government of Canada on Tuesday walked back part of a program allowing people in British Columbia to possess small amounts of drugs, including heroin and cocaine, without fear of criminal charges. At the request of the province and after a public backlash, people in British Columbia are no longer permitted to use drugs in public places.

Under the changes, which went into effect immediately, adults will still be allowed to possess small amounts of drugs. But they will now have to use them in legal residences, at safe injection sites and at other harm-reduction centers established by the health authorities.

The re-criminalization of public drug use in British Columbia underscores the difficulties that governments face as they grapple with the opioid crisis. Even in a province that has been a global pioneer of the harm reduction movement, an approach that seeks to reduce risky behavior rather than to punish drug users, there are no easy answers.

The province’s coroner estimated that there were a record 2,511 toxic drug deaths last year. Drug overdoses from toxic substances kill more people ages 10 to 59 than homicides, suicides, accidents and natural diseases combined in British Columbia, according to the provincial coroner’s office.

The goals of decriminalizing possession were to enable police officers to focus their time on large drug distributors rather than users and encourage users to be open to treatment. But concerns about public drug use have quickly surfaced and raised repeatedly in the provincial legislature by members of opposition parties.

Eugenia Oviedo-Joekes, a professor in the medical school at the University of British Columbia who studies addiction and public health policy, said the decision amounted to “three steps back” in dealing with the opioid crisis.

Smoking and drinking in public, she noted, are both successfully restricted without resorting to criminal law, and she criticized the two levels of government for re-criminalizing public drug use without expanding the availability of safe drug-use sites or taking other measures.

“Instead of going after improvements, we go after restrictions,” Professor Oviedo-Joekes said. “That’s what is a bit frustrating here.”

“This is a health crisis, not a criminal one,” Ya’ara Saks, the federal minister of mental health and addictions, told reporters. “That being said, communities need to be safe. People need to have confidence of that in their own communities so they can move about freely and feel comfortable.”

The decriminalization of the possession of small amounts of drugs was a three-year exemption that started in January 2023, and was one of several measures by British Columbia to deal with its opioid crisis. The decriminalization plan was supported by police officials and the province’s chief coroner.

The use of drugs in public has long been a fact of life in parts of British Columbia, particularly Vancouver. Statistics from the city’s police force show that complaints about it have fallen since the start of the pilot program, but public use appears to have spread beyond the neighborhoods where it was most common before decriminalization.

“There have been several high-profile instances of problematic drug use at public locations including parks, beaches and around public transit,” Fiona Wilson, the deputy chief of the Vancouver Police Department, told a parliamentary committee last month. “In addition, there have been concerns from small businesses about problematic drug use.”

But, she added, police were unable to act on complaints after decriminalization: “If you have someone who is with their family at the beach and there’s a person next to them smoking crack cocaine, it’s not a police matter.”

In response, the provincial government first tried to ban public drug use last year in public places like parks, beaches, playgrounds and areas near workplaces. But a judge on British Columbia’s Supreme Court brought an injunction against the ban, and then ruled that it threatened to cause “irreparable harm” to drug users by pushing them to less safe areas.

David Eby, the province’s premier whose government faces an election this year, asked the federal government to again make public drug use a crime two weeks ago.

Garth Mullins, a member of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, said that the acute housing problems in the city mean that many of the province’s estimated 225,000 drug users do not have a private residence, and safe injection sites lack the capacity to deal with them.

“This is going to force people back into the alleys and into the shadows, and that’s not good,” he said. “It’s going to mean more people getting arrested, getting records and going to jail for simple possession.”

Mr. Mullins also disputed that public drug use had become a substantial problem in British Columbia since decriminalization.

“There is no data or evidence that there’s any actual danger to people,” he said. “So it’s all about feelings and these feelings are being whipped up by conservative politicians.”

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