Cities can choose own path on public drug use, BC Premier says

Written By Fran Yanor

“Local governments are well placed to [determine] … what’s required for community safety.”

––David Eby

When it comes to regulating drug use in public, most B.C.’s municipal councils fall into one of two camps. 

They’re waiting to see if upcoming provincial legislation restricts public drug use to a level they can live with, or they’re forging ahead with local solutions that try to balance citizens’ concerns with public health regulations.

Premier David Eby seems fine either way.

“Local governments are well placed to be able to make determinations about what’s required for community safety in their communities when it comes to public drug use,” Eby said when asked in September whether his government intends to expand drug use restrictions, as well as facilitate municipal bylaws in new legislation expected this fall.

According to the premier, it will do both.

The legislation will set a provincial standard and “will reinforce our provincial belief that if we’re funding overdose prevention sites, that people should be directed to use at those sites, not at playgrounds, not in the doorways of businesses, not at bus stops,” Eby said.

All of which already goes beyond the province’s recently announced drug use restrictions. 

In January, Health Canada approved – at the B.C. government’s request – a three-year pilot project to decriminalize personal possession of hard drugs up to 2.5 grams of controlled substances such as fentanyl, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines.

After several months of pushback from dozens of mayors concerned about the health and safety effects of unregulated public drug use in their towns and cities, the premier committed to working with municipalities to put rules in place to ensure community safety. Then, in the summer, the province promised to incorporate local government concerns ito legislation with province-wide standards for public drug consumption.

“If we’re funding overdose prevention sites … people should be directed to use at those sites.”

David Eby

In September, the B.C. government announced illicit drug possession was prohibited – with Health Canada’s approval – in splash parks, wading pools and skate parks, or within 15 metres of a playground structure. Public drug use was already not allowed in school playgrounds, daycares and airports.

While the September restrictions were welcomed by municipal leaders, they were also largely panned as a perplexing measure that falls short of what’s actually needed to respect community health and safety concerns.

Restrictions don’t go far enough

The restrictions don’t go far enough, said Nanaimo councillor Ian Thorpe, days after they were announced. 

“Playgrounds are sort of a no brainer. I think we also have to look at simply being on public property outside of businesses in our downtown,” he said. 

“We are not allowed to stand outside a doorway and smoke. Why should you be allowed to stand outside a doorway on the sidewalk and do drugs?”

“We are not allowed to stand outside a doorway and smoke. Why should you be allowed to … do drugs?”

Ian Thorpe

Thorpe brought forward a motion to his council asking staff to research bylaw options on how best to restrict public drug use in the city. Staff have since advised council to hold off until the provincial legislation is introduced, which Thorpe said he’s willing to do.

“If I don’t think they’re moving enough on this, then I will bring forward a motion for a bylaw,” he said.

‘I can go 16 metres away and I can shoot up’

“[Restrictions] should’ve been brought in a long time ago,” North Cowichan councillor Tek Manhas said of B.C.’s drug use rules. Having to be 15 metres away from a play structure is too narrow, he said, particularly when some parks are 100 or 200 metres wide. 

“I can go 16 meters away and I can shoot up,” he said. “I don’t think it’s the proper way to do it.”

A man cleans a crack pipe outside a safe consumption site in Prince George. [Photo Fran Yanor]

Manhas said he’s looking forward to seeing the provincial legislation.

The city representative drew countrywide attention in April when he and fellow councillor Bruce Findlay sat in lawn chairs drinking beer on private property across from an overdose prevention site, making the point that people aren’t allowed to drink beer in public, while there are no rules against illicit drug use. 

Despite the province opening a drug consumption facility in the community, people openly consume drugs right outside, “in front of kids and the general public,” Manhas said.

Worse, said Manhas, is that the consumption site is located between three schools. “The kids were walking into people shooting up and inhaling drugs while they were going to McDonalds at lunchtime or to businesses around the area.”

In June, Manhas put forward a motion to draft a bylaw restricting drug use in playgrounds, public places, and more, but his council voted four-to-three to ask staff to research options, he said. “We still haven’t seen the staff report.”

Some councils hedge on drug use bylaws

In a similar situation in Duncan, council also referred the matter to staff, citing conflicting concerns about people who use drugs, business owners affected by open drug use, and the legal challenge that interrupted Campbell River from enacting its own proposed bylaw.

Municipal leaders elsewhere have spoken of limited staffing to research options and worries about their administration’s capacity for enforcement if they did pass a bylaw. Some talk of beefing up already existing public smoking bylaws. And many have opted to watch other local governments to learn from mistakes and successes elsewhere. 

According to the Premier, provincial legislation will take some of those concerns into account.

Local governments have limited resources – staffing, research, legal – needed to create their own bylaws, so the legislation will set out a clear provincial minimum standard “that recognizes what [councils] are seeing in communities,“ Eby said. 

If municipalities want to go beyond what’s legislated, they can, the premier said. “Or they can rely on the provincial standards.”

Other local governments chart new waters

Many municipalities aren’t waiting.

Sicamous council was the first in B.C. to pass a bylaw restricting public drug use from public parks and beaches frequented by children and families. 

Other councils followed, including Port Coquitlam in June, whose council banned public drug use in parks, playgrounds and recreation centres. “Fentanyl doesn’t mix with children’s playgrounds. It’s just not appropriate. We’re not going to allow it in our city,” the city’s mayor, Brad West, told Global TV in June.

“It’s easiest to talk about children and families and to make that leap and the playground argument,” said Kamloops councillor Katie Neustaeter of the drug use restrictions limited to proximity to play structures in parks. “But children enter libraries across our province. Children are walking down sidewalks. Children are everywhere in our society. We should not be limiting their spaces and where they are welcome based on open drug use within our communities.”

The same is true for seniors, or for people who own or operate businesses, so a balance must be struck, she said. “We need to lessen these impacts and create options for those who use drugs.”

Kamloops bylaw may be most encompassing

Juggling both goals, Kamloops council is advocating for the province to build a new complex care facility in its community. Neustaeter said. And in early September, it passed third reading of a bylaw restricting drug use on public land – including sidewalks – in what appears to be the most encompassing municipal ban on drug use in B.C. 

“We were concerned that the province would not extend its legislation to sidewalks,” she said. “We’re hearing this outcry from the business community who are entering their workplaces every single day with needles on the doorstep, with human waste, with litter and garbage. 

“And their needs are not being heard in general. So in Kamloops, we really want to prioritize these folks. They are the backbone of our community, they’re the first to step up and support vulnerable people through donations to our social service agencies or the various programs that are happening. We need to care for them in return. And part of that is recognizing that they’re also being impacted.”

“We now need to be able to have trauma-informed enforcement that can relocate people to appropriate areas to use those drugs safely.”

Katie Neustaeter

Several resolutions related to drug use were suported by local governments at the Union of B.C. Municipalities annual conference in September, including requests for funding, regulation and expanded restrictions on public drug use.

Now that a bylaw restricting drug consumption is in place in Kamloops, the city needs to define where it’s appropriate for drugs to be used, said Neustaeter.

“To that end, we now need to be able to have trauma-informed enforcement that can relocate people to appropriate areas to use those drugs safely for themselves and for the benefit of the community.“ 

Penticton’s ‘firm but fair’ strategy

In Penticton, council reinvented its approach to public drug use to do just that. The city dramatically expanded the ranks of its bylaw officers and elevated them to peace officers with the authority to move people along to safe consumption areas. 

“The intent is not to financially penalize people, because that’s pointless. It’s about moving them in the direction of the safe consumption site. It’s about channeling them into the areas where it’s safe and somewhat acceptable to do what they’re doing. But where they also get a mental health specialist there, hopefully, that will counsel them on options for their lifestyle.”

Bloomfield called it “firm but fair.”

Key to the whole system is cooperation. Bylaw officers work in close contact with police, harm reduction, and support service outreach workers, in what Bloomfield calls “probably the most robust bylaw department in B.C. for a community our size.

“Channeling funding away from hiring new RCMP officers to increasing bylaw department has always been my mantra,” said Bloomfield.

Recent approval from the province for Car 60 program funding for a mental health/law enforcement response team will strengthen the mix. It’s early days, but the latest statistics indicate fatal overdoses were down leading into summer, as were car thefts, thefts from cars and shoplifting, the mayor said.  

What the community lacks is what nearly every community in B.C. needs more of – treatment and recovery. There is a small operation that runs recovery programs out of several local single family homes in the Penticton area, “which is doing great work,” he said. 

“But they need 50 more places.”