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Canada Cannabis News: B.C. introduces bill to ban illicit drug use in many public spaces

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The B.C. government has tabled new legislation that would ban illegal drug use in many public places, less than a year into a decriminalization pilot project meant to de-stigmatize drug users.

If passed, the bill would ban the use of illicit drugs within six metres of all building entrances and bus stops; within 15 metres of playgrounds, spray and wading pools, and skate parks; and in parks, beaches and sports fields.

“British Columbians overwhelmingly agree addiction is a health matter. At the same time, they’re also concerned about open drug use in public spaces, especially near where kids play,” Premier David Eby said in a news release.

He said the new restrictions will bring the rules in line with those for smoking, drinking and cannabis use.

Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said the province is “doing everything we can” to expand addiction treatment amid B.C.’s seven-year public health emergency over toxic drug deaths.

However, B.C.’s chief coroner has made it clear that people with severe drug dependencies do not make up the majority of people dying from the unregulated drug supply.

The proposed changes come after municipal governments asked for more support regarding an ongoing pilot project that decriminalizes the personal possession of certain illicit drugs in the province. Experts and advocates have said the policy saves lives.

In January, B.C.’s three-year pilot project on decriminalization went into effect, meaning any adult may legally carry up to 2.5 grams of certain illicit drugs.

The move was an attempt to reduce stigma and combat deaths from the toxic drug crisis. Nearly 13,000 people in B.C. have died from the toxic drug supply since a public health emergency was declared in April 2016.

However the use of those substances in public has yet to be regulated. Earlier this year, the B.C. Ministry of Public Safety conducted consultation with municipalities on this issue.

In mid-September, the province announced a ban on drug possession within 15 metres of structures in playgrounds, spray pools, wading pools and skate parks. During the Union of B.C. Municipalities (UBCM) convention, the province promised further changes to the regulations would come this fall.

A sign reads 'Welcome to the UBCM Convention'.
The UBCM conference saw many municipal councillors and mayors saying the decriminalization pilot project is causing problems in their communities. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

“We can put in place the mechanisms that are there for police to intervene, when necessary, when someone is struggling in a way that makes communities less safe,” said Premier David Eby.

At the annual UBCM conference, municipalities asked the province for more support in funding and regulating public drug use as a result of the decriminalization pilot project, and asked to expand possession and use prohibitions.

Some, including Kamloops, Campbell River, and Sicamous, have tried to bring in their own bylaws limiting consumption of illicit drugs in public spaces.

Kelowna mayor wants ban on public use expanded

Before the new legislation was announced on Thursday, Kelowna Mayor Tom Dyas said he wanted to see restrictions extended to the entirety of playgrounds and parks, and include transit stops and beaches.

“The ability for open and public drug use has created a situation of safety concerns for all our citizens,” Dyas said.

The Vancouver Network of Drug Users (VANDU) spoke out in opposition to the potential changes in legislation at a news conference on Wednesday afternoon. 

A poster reads 'End the war on drugs'.
The Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users said walking back aspects of decriminalization could have deadly consequences for drug users. (Emma Djwa/CBC)

The organization is criticizing the province, for what it describes as walking back on its stance on decriminalization, which the organization says will push people into using drugs indoors in unsafe environments and have “deadly consequences.”

The group is also calling on B.C. to create more overdose prevention sites (OPS), including safe inhalation spaces.

“For this pilot to have any chance of success in reducing the harm of toxic drugs, the B.C. government must stand behind it with proper resources, not water it down and walk it back,” said VANDU board member Dave Hamm.

Dyas said he’s not opposed to safe consumption sites as long as they are paired with resources to help people transition away from drug use.

He said there is a “substantial shortfall” of treatment spaces available for people looking for help with addictions and mental health.

“What we see within our community is people who are reaching out to try to find some help. And the help isn’t there for them,” Dyas said.

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