Will BC Towns’ Bylaws Undermine Drug Decriminalization Pilot?

 

The Tyee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

B.C.’s three-year pilot drug decriminalization program is aimed at reducing the barriers and stigma that prevent people from accessing life-saving supports and services. 

But since the possession of  small amounts of drugs was decriminalized on Jan. 31, some  municipalities have looked at bans on public drug use that advocates  warn undermine the provincial effort.

In Campbell River, the city decided to  implement its own bylaws three days before decriminalization took  effect, banning and ticketing public use of controlled substances. 

Penticton and Kamloops have approved or plan to ban public use, while Kelowna and Sicamous have banned use in city parks. In Prince George,  RCMP are relying on an existing “safe streets” bylaw to say that  decriminalization is not in effect in public areas and are seizing  drugs.

In its submission to the  federal health minister seeking approval for the decriminalization  experiment, the B.C. government said “substance use is a public health  matter, not a criminal justice issue.”

Dr. Charmaine Enns, medical  health officer for North Vancouver Island, agrees. “Individuals who use  substances, they’re not criminals,” she said. Removing the criminal and  enforcement element will help reframe our society’s understanding of  substance use as a health issue, not a criminal issue, says Enns. “So  that people have as much opportunity as possible to access care and  services — to be connected to the care that they deserve.”

The Campbell River bylaws were intended to  “maintain the status quo of penalization,” says Enns. The bylaws are  simply replacing criminal sanctions with administrative sanctions, she  says. 

Pivot Legal Society challenged the initial Campbell River bylaw, saying it went beyond the council’s power. It filed a petition  in B.C. Supreme Court on Feb. 10 seeking to quash the bylaws and an  interim injunction stopping Campbell River from enforcing them. Campbell  River dropped the bylaws on Feb. 23,  but introduced a new version last month.

Continuing the harms of criminalization

Caitlin Shane is the staff lawyer for drug  policy at Pivot Legal Society. Shane has been advocating for many years  for decriminalization, and wrote “Act Now!: Decriminalizing Drug Laws in Vancouver,” Pivot’s 2020 report calling for decriminalization.

“As skyrocketing rates of overdose deaths  across Canada demonstrate, prohibition-based drug policy is a veritable  death sentence for people who use drugs,” wrote Shane.

Municipal bylaws aimed at maintaining the  status quo will mean continued police involvement, the report found,  which drives drug use underground and increases the dangers.

Enns said the evidence shows the risk of  enforcement continues the stigmatization and fear of police action. “The  reason we wanted an exemption for the decriminalization of personal  possession is so that people were no longer afraid,” she said.  “And  when people aren’t afraid, they tend to use less, they tend to be  safer.”

“If you continue to keep people afraid,  they try to hide. They will be alone. They will use quickly. They will  discard and leave things behind. These are all issues of concern for the  community, but the bylaw will make those things more likely,” says  Enns. 

“We’re trying to do quite the opposite, to keep people safer and to help connect them to care.”

Toxic drug deaths rates are already higher in smaller communities, according to a November report by the BC Centre for Disease Control and the University of British Columbia. 

“The odds of fatal overdose were about 30  per cent higher in rural areas than in large urban centres, with some  regions reporting odds 50 per cent higher than others,” the study found.

Pivot’s Shane sees these types  of bylaws as a backlash against change. “And unfortunately, that  backlash gets launched against people who are directly impacted by these  laws in the first place — people who use drugs, unhoused folks,  Indigenous people, and particularly people who are in positions of all  of those things overlapping.”

Shane said she had advised the province’s  decriminalization planning table of the risk. “From day one, I was  constantly expressing concern to the province that unless we were  extremely vigilant, we would see municipalities moving immediately upon  decriminalization taking effect to pass bylaws just like this one, to  undermine the B.C. policy.” 

In Prince George, the RCMP are relying on  an existing bylaw to say that decriminalization is not in effect in the  Moccasin Flats area where a tent camp has sheltered people.

Juls Budău, manager for the Prince George  safe consumption site Two Doors Down, tweeted that RCMP were saying it’s  public space and “hugely discriminatory against the unhoused people and  Indigenous people who live in the flats,” she wrote.

Where is this coming from?

Not all municipalities are taking these  steps. In fact, the Union of BC Municipalities supports  decriminalization and participated in the provincial decriminalization  planning table. 

UBCM delegates endorsed decriminalization  as a way to “holistically address the opioid crisis, mental health  issues and their connections to homelessness and overdose deaths in  local governments across Canada.” 

Local governments often say the bylaws are based on the need to protect public safety. In a Campbell River council meeting, Coun. Doug Chapman supported the bylaws by referencing the Campbell River RCMP.

“With discussions with the RCMP, they have  indicated these two bylaws would be beneficial for them to keep the  peace and good law order,” said Chapman. “Unfortunately, we have to have  these bylaws for the small group that would persist in consuming  illegal drugs on public property. And this would give the RCMP the tools  they need to help us with that.”  

Insp. Jeff Preston of the Campbell River RCMP was at a Jan. 24 council meeting, advising on the language of the bylaws. 

The Tyee asked the City of Campbell River  which member of the local RCMP requested this bylaw. Staff director of  community safety Peter Wipper responded via email saying “the city is  not in a position to comment on this matter at this time.” 

However, BC RCMP communications services said via email that “neither the RCMP nor Insp. Preston requested the bylaw.”  

The RCMP were represented at the province’s decriminalization planning table. 

And the Canadian Association of Chiefs of  Police have recognized decriminalization as an effective way to reduce  both the public health and public safety concerns associated with  substance use. “Merely arresting individuals for simple possession of  illicit drugs has proven to be ineffective,” says a report  by the association.  “Research from other countries who have boldly  chosen to take a health rather than an enforcement-based approach to  problematic drug use have demonstrated positive results.”

Preston spoke on these issues in the fall of 2021, in a public community conversation  hosted by the Campbell River Chamber of Commerce. “In some cases, the  issues that you are seeing, especially in the downtown, really need to  be addressed by mental health and addictions personnel, and not  necessarily the RCMP,” Preston said.

Island Health’s Enns says it’s important to  fully appreciate a bylaw banning public use “disproportionately impacts  the people who are already the most marginalized and vulnerable, in  that they have nowhere else to go.”

Enns says conversations around public  safety should include “the people who are unhoused, marginalized,  disenfranchised, living on the street, in the bush or in a tent, because  their safety is significantly challenged. They’re unsafe.”

Pivot’s Shane has similar concerns about the public safety argument.

“Keeping it safe for who?” she asks.  “There’s this sense that drug users aren’t people, that unhoused people  aren’t people, and that the real community that we need to keep safe are  the property-owning or relative elites of society.” 

Such bylaws continue “to punish drug users  and to deny them the benefits of decriminalization,” says Shane. “Fears  about needles can be assuaged with adequate harm reduction services such  as [overdose prevention sites] and needle boxes.”

“Drug prohibition is itself an incredibly  racist policy,” Shane says, meant to perpetuate inequality and to  control racialized communities. 

Race and public use bans

Coun. Tanille Johnston, who is Liǧʷiłdaxʷ  from the We Wai Kai Nation, is the first Indigenous Campbell River  council member. She’s also the only councillor who voted against the  bylaws, voicing concerns about  proceeding without consulting Island  Health’s medical officials. Council initially voted not to acknowledge receiving a letter from Island Health on the bylaws.”

“We haven’t consulted our chief medical officer, we haven’t consulted Island Health on how to do this,” Johnston said.

Enns says dealing with issues that concern  many citizens, like visible homelessness, distress and concerns about  public safety, requires getting to their roots.

“And many of those roots are based on the  fact that people have nowhere to live. They are unhoused, they don’t  have access to services, they’re disconnected from significant  relationships in their lives. So more disconnection isn’t going to  help.” 

“We don’t know people’s stories,” she says.  “But what we can do is recognize that all of us will be impacted, if we  haven’t been already — all of our communities are impacted. And so this  is something that we just can’t ignore.” 

This week Premier David Eby said  he will work with municipalities on their “shared goal” to create safer  and healthier communities. Eby had maintained previously that any  public safety issues could be dealt with using existing laws.

Shane says she finds Eby’s comments “really concerning, albeit vague.”

“Unless the rules he’s talking about  require local governments to stop preventing health authorities and  people who use drugs from setting up overdose prevention sites, then I  worry he’s just going to work out something that punishes drug users  further all the while cowing to local governments’ unevidenced stigma  and fear.”

Shane says there is no evidence that public  drug consumption has increased with decriminalization anywhere, adding  the province should issue a moratorium on new bylaws that prohibit  public drug consumption because they undermine the decriminalization  policy.

“Allowing local governments to ban public  drug consumption in the wake of decrim flies in the face of health  professionals’ advice and signals reckless disregard for the lives of  people who use drugs.”

Meenakshi Mannoe, criminalization and  policing campaigner for Pivot Legal Society, said anti-harm reduction  politics have hampered the rollout of decriminalization. “This is  coupled with police targeting people who experience homelessness and  rely on the unstable and unpredictable drug supply,” Mannoe said. “These  lobbying efforts are designed to harm people who use drugs — whether  they live on the street in the Downtown Eastside, in encampments  throughout the province, or are otherwise deemed ‘undesirable.’”

The fate of the bylaws may end up being decided in court.

But Enns hopes people feel empowered to  know what their roles and rights are within their communities, to inform  themselves and become involved in community decision-making.

“We need to do our due diligence in the  communities we live in as citizens and as members of those communities  to help inform and shape decisions,” says Enns.

“And, if we’re going to hope for things to be better and different, we have to do things better and differently.”

Top image credit: The Campbell River pier at night – Photo by Darren Kirby via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

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