Mayors from across the province are cheering a new measure prohibiting the possession of illicit drugs at playgrounds, spray pools, wading pools and skate parks.
But a spokesperson for the main political opposition says the measure amounts to “too little, too late” in offering a broader critique of decriminalization.
The measure comes into effect Monday (Sept. 18) after Health Canada approved a requested amendment from the provincial government to the temporary decriminalization of certain illicit drugs. The trial is part and parcel of a policy package to deal with the toxic drug crisis that has claimed the lives of more than 12,500 British Columbians since April 2016.
The trial — which exempts possession of up to 2.5 grams of certain illegal drugs for personal use from Jan. 31, 2023 to Jan. 30, 2026 from criminal penalties — itself started in late January and designated schools as exclusion zones.
But the provincial government soon faced criticism from the political opposition, municipal leaders and residents who blamed it for the proliferation of illicit drugs and crime in public spaces such as playgrounds. The provincial government in spring 2023 announced steps in response to those concerns.
Mental Health and Addictions Minister Jennifer Whiteside said her government requested the amendment so families will feel safe in their community while the province continues to use every tool available to save lives.
The amendment allows police to enforce the controlled drugs and substances act when they find individuals in possession of illegal drugs in the newly designated spaces. Intoxication remains illegal in all public places.
Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim praised Health Canada for granting the exemption.
“By making these spaces — playgrounds, splash parks, and skate parks — exceptions to the decriminalization pilot, Health Canada is helping to ensure those sites remain places where families, and especially children, will be able to safely enjoy our communities,” he said. “This is a positive step forward, helping to find balance for our communities, including families, seniors, children, and the needs of our most vulnerable residents,” he added.
Sim’s counterparts in Victoria — Marianne Alto — and Courtenay — Bob Wells — echoed these comments.
“Decriminalization is one part of a complex response to the toxic-drug crisis,” Alto said. “As the longer-term effects of decriminalization are assessed, and more addictions and mental-health services are established, it’s important to consider and take steps that specifically protect children.”
Wells said the new spaces designated for exclusion should be safe spaces for families and children, while also pointing to the need to address the toxic drug crisis.
“In addition to these important measures to help keep substances away from kids, we urgently need multi-layered solutions, including expanding treatment, safer supply, supervised consumption, and supports for people affected by substance use who desperately need help,” he said.
BC United’s Elenore Sturko, Surrey South MLA and shadow minister for mental health, addiction, recovery and education, acknowledged that government is “finally doing something” but called the measure a “knee-jerk” reaction, whose substance falls short of the measures proposed by municipalities.
She added that government should have ramped up treatment investments in making the broader argument that government should have paired measures to protect the public from the effects of the trial and additional investments in treatment well prior to the start of the trial.
“They could have held back and delayed this (decriminalization) until they had ensured adequate supports for people with health care issues such as addiction were going to be enough,” she said. “They could have also implemented wider regulations to go along with decriminalization.”
But that did not happen because New Democrats “were so intend on ramming it through” as part of their election platform, that they did not take the time to consider the potential detrimental effects, she added. This not only hurt communities, but “ultimately people with addictions themselves,” she added.
The provincial government coupled the announcement with two other pieces.
First, it confirmed that it would introduce legislation to further regulate public drug use in the fall following recent consultations.
A number of municipalities have been trying to regulate public drug use through their own bylaws, but not without running into legal and political obstacles. The prospect of provincial legislation promises a more uniform response.
Second, the province is releasing data on mental-health and substance-use services to show the expansion of mental-health and addiction care.
The recent provincial budget includes allocates about $1 billion toward improving mental health and addiction in the wake of the ongoing toxic drug crisis.
While some experts have praised the investment, others have considered it insufficient with the main political opposition (BC United, then known as BC Liberals) having presented its own plan worth $1.5 billion in early 2023 in run-up to the provincial budget.
Government also continues to monitor the effects of the decriminalization trial.