Home News Canada re-criminalizes public drug use in British Columbia

Canada re-criminalizes public drug use in British Columbia


The Canadian government on Tuesday withdrew part of a program that would have allowed British Columbians to possess small amounts of drugs, including heroin and cocaine, without fear of criminal charges. At the province’s request and after public outcry, people in British Columbia are no longer allowed to consume drugs in public places.

Under the changes, which take effect immediately, adults can still possess small amounts of the drug. But they must now use them at legal residences, safe injection sites and other harm reduction centers established by health authorities.

British Columbia’s recriminalization of public drug use highlights the difficulties the government faces in responding to the opioid crisis. Even in a province that has been at the vanguard of the global harm reduction movement, an approach aimed at reducing risky behavior rather than punishing people who use drugs, there are no easy answers.

The province’s coroner estimates that a record 2,511 people died from poisonous drugs last year. Toxic drug overdoses kill more people aged 10 to 59 in British Columbia than homicides, suicides, accidents and natural diseases combined, according to the provincial coroner’s office.

The goal of decriminalizing possession is to enable police to focus their time on large drug dealers instead of drug users, and to encourage drug users to get treatment. But concerns about drug use in public spaces soon surfaced and were raised repeatedly in the provincial legislature by opposition members.

Eugenia Oviedo-Jocks, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Medicine who studies addiction and public health policy, said the decision amounted to “three steps backwards” in dealing with the opioid crisis.

Noting that both smoking and drinking in public places have been successfully restricted without resorting to criminal law, she criticized both levels of government for re-criminalizing public drug use without expanding safe drug use spaces or taking other measures. crime.

“Instead of pursuing improvements, we are pursuing limitations,” Professor Oviedo-Jocks said. “That’s what’s a little frustrating here.”

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

Decriminalizing possession of small amounts of drugs is a three years The exemption, which becomes available in January 2023, is one of several measures in British Columbia’s response to the opioid crisis. The decriminalization plan has the support of police officials and the province’s chief coroner.

In parts of British Columbia, especially Vancouver, public drug use has long been a reality. Statistics from the city’s police department show that complaints about it have dropped since the pilot program began, but public use appears to have expanded beyond neighborhoods where it was most common before criminalization.

Fiona Wilson said: “There have been a number of high-profile incidents of drug use taking place in public places such as parks, beaches and around public transport.” Vancouver Police Department Deputy Chief told a parliamentary committee last month. “In addition, small businesses have expressed concerns about problematic drug use.”

But, she added, following decriminalization, police would not be able to act on complaints: “If someone is on the beach with their family and there’s a person next to them doing crack cocaine, that’s not the police’s business.”

In response, the provincial government last year made its first attempt to ban public drug use in public places such as parks, beaches, playgrounds and near workplaces. But a British Columbia Supreme Court judge blocked the ban, then ruled it could cause “irreparable harm” to drug users by pushing them into less safe areas.

Premier David Eby, whose government faces an election this year, asked the federal government two weeks ago to again criminalize drug use in public places.

Garth Mullins, a member of the Vancouver Area Drug Users Network, said the city’s severe housing problem means there are an estimated 225,000 drug users in the province, many of whom do not have private homes and safe injection sites lack the capacity to cope. them.

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

Mr. Mullins also questioned how public drug use has become a serious problem in B.C. since legalization.

“There’s no data or evidence to suggest there’s any actual danger to people,” he said. “So it’s all about feelings, and those feelings are stoked by conservative politicians.”

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