Municipalities want rules on drug use for safety of all citizens

Written By Fran Yanor

“These are substances that are incredibly lethal and incredibly addictive. And we, as part of decriminalization, haven’t put in any guardrails. None.”

Ian Baillie

In many ways, Rebecca Price-Baechle’s daughter is a typical seven-year-old. She goes to elementary school, takes gymnastics and has a family who loves her. 

Unfortunately, that’s where her daughter and normal diverge.

“She has witnessed people smoking crack, she has witnessed male nudity, she has witnessed human defecation on our business. She has seen crack pipes and needles. She has seen people overdosing. She has seen her mother and father be threatened physically,” said Price-Baechle.

Price Baechle and her husband own and operate a business in downtown Kamloops beside a supportive housing facility. 

“I am literally in the belly of the beast every single day,” Price-Baechle told Kamloops council after the city introduced a motion to enact a bylaw to ban public consumption of controlled substances including cocaine, methamphetamine and fentanyl. 

“The amount of stress and depression that us, as business owners, have to go through handling this on our own, is insurmountable,” she said. 

Setting rules around hard drug use

Three months into B.C.’s three-year pilot project decriminalizing personal possession of hard drugs, several municipal councils, including Sicamous, Campbell River, Penticton and Kamloops, have passed, or are openly considering passing, bylaws to ban consumption of controlled substances in public places. 

Health Canada has approved the B.C. government’s request to decriminalize personal possession of certain illegal drugs. As of Jan. 31, British Columbians 18 and older are now allowed to possess up to 2.5 grams total of crack and powder cocaine, methamphetamines, morphine, heroin, fentanyl and MDMA for personal use. Under the three-year pilot program running until Jan. 31 2026, individuals won’t be criminally charged for personal possession and police won’t confiscate their drugs.

“We do need to set a societal expectation around where these activities can happen,” said Katie Neustaeter, the Kamloops councillor who brought forward a motion to enact a bylaw banning hard drug use in the city’s facilities, highways, parks and public spaces. 

“We do need to draw a line and say, ‘If you’re going to use, let’s ensure you have a safe place to do so, for your benefit, but also for the benefit of others,’ Neustaeter said.

“When drunk driving was at a crisis point in this province, ICBC didn’t say, ‘Let’s teach people how to drive drunk safely.’ They said, ‘Let’s re-educate about appropriate behaviour, about alternative measures.,’” Neustaeter said. “That’s really what this [Kamloops] bylaw is about, is aligning those things so that they make good common sense and begin to create solutions, one step at a time.”

Municipal representatives across B.C. are caught in a bind between public health officials who warn that any drug use ban will increase stigma and harm to drug users, and other city residents demanding increased public order and safety for the wider community.

Sicamous council sets precedent

The province is in the midst of a three-year decriminalization “experiment” that is being implemented with hope, rather than any clear strategy, said Sicamous councillor Ian Baillie during a Mar. 8 council meeting with Island Health officials. “It’s reasonable for municipalities to want some rules around it.” 

Sicamous council recently passed a bylaw banning open hard drug use in public parks and beaches – the first municipality in B.C. to do so. 

The first jurisdiction in B.C. to pass a bylaw restricting hard drug use in specific public places, Sicamous council pictured here (L to R) are Bob Evans, Siobhan Rich, Malcolm Makayev, mayor Colleen Anderson, Gord Bushell, Pam Beech and Ian Baillie. [Photo District of Sicamous]

“These are substances that are incredibly lethal and incredibly addictive. And we, as part of decriminalization, haven’t put in any guardrails. None. That’s what we’re talking about with this bylaw,” Baillie said.

“We do this for alcohol, we do this for cannabis. We do this for a host of things that we regulate as governments. Not to prevent people from getting help, but [to make] sure innocent people are not exposed to a world that I don’t think a lot of people want to be exposed to.”

Baillie worked in the cannabis industry and said the regulations and stakeholder engagements and hoops he had to jump through were onerous, but ultimately quite sensible. Yet with decriminalization of controlled substances, there are very few rules, he said.

“The knock-on effects to other people that will be exposed to this, because we’ve decided that we think this might work, just may not be worth it. And might end up doing more harm than good.” 

Baillie’s colleagues on Sicamous council worried about “normalizing” the use of hard drugs for children and youth, as well as the burden unregulated consumption would put on the public to become first responders. 

“Everybody that goes out to these public places should probably have one or two Naloxone kits with them, realistically, to be able to help in this situation, because we know [overdoses are] going to continue to happen, because we haven’t controlled the safety of the substance,” said Sicamous councillor Pam Beech.

‘Unintended consequences’

Steve Forseth, president of the North Central Local Government Association, which represents about 40 local governments in B.C.’s north, said he thinks communities are experiencing the unintended consequences of how drug policy is being implemented.

“Like, right idea, but just maybe not thinking about where some of the unintended consequences are before you go down the path of decriminalization,” he said.

“I think what we’re seeing, essentially, is a lot of unintended consequences.”

Steve Forseth

More robust consultation with municipalities prior to decriminalization might have helped diffuse some of the issues, said Forseth. 

Balancing the safety of the larger community with the people who are addicted to drugs is tricky, whether it’s managing hard drug use, homeless encampments or implementing decriminalization, Forseth said. “Because we as local governments, we have very few tools to address these topics” and must rely on social, housing and health policy and funding from the provincial and federal governments.

According to the letter of requirements from the Government of Canada which the B.C. government committed to as conditions of decriminalization, B.C. is required to engage with stakeholders, including municipalities, “to address relevant concerns and inform implementation” and “to identify meaningful public health and public safety indicators.”

Of more than a dozen elected officials from across the province surveyed by Northern Beat, none could recall meaningful consultation with the Province that resulted in any substantive municipal concerns being addressed prior to, or since, commencement of decriminalization.

Constructively consulted or not, municipalities have seen a myriad of issues building in their towns and cities for years.

“Long before decriminalization, we were starting to see more open use of drugs within our communities,” said Kamloops councillor Neustaeter.

Decriminalization and the proposed bylaw banning drug use will hopefully jumpstart useful conversations between all levels of government and stakeholders, and Kamloops will be working in partnership towards solutions, she said.

“There’s so many things that we agree about when it comes to drugs and how to protect people who use, but there needs to be a broader conversation about how to stem this tide, about how to put blockers in place,” she said.

Neustaeter called decriminalization “a catalyst for this conversation” and said the proposed bylaw would likely evolve because “this is just the beginning.”  

But the path forward for municipalities is far from straightforward.

Pushback: Campbell River’s learning curve

When Campbell River first introduced two bylaws, one to ban hard drug consumption in public places and another to fine violators $200, Pivot Legal, an anti-poverty, anti-police activist group from Vancouver, filed a petition in the BC Supreme Court alleging the ban went beyond the city’s scope and the bylaws were unreasonable and invalid. Pivot further threatened to seek a court injunction suspending enforcement of the bylaw until the case was heard in court.

In response, Campbell River council withdrew the bylaw and reintroduced the ban as a nuisance bylaw prohibiting drug use in specific public places to avoid accusations of discrimination and to ensure it wouldn’t require public health approval.

The current bylaw will ban drug use in places such as the community’s downtown parks, library and community centre after residents, businesses and visitors said people using hard drugs can result in “disruptive behaviours and avoidance in using these important public spaces,” a spokesperson for mayor Kermit Dahl told Northern Beat in an emailed response to questions. 

That reasoning didn’t fly with Island Health medical officer Dr. Charmaine Enns. 

“It is especially concerning that a key rationale for the proposed bylaw appears to be the discomfort of people in shared public places, while generally discounting the distress of and demonstrated harm suffered by those who use substances,”  Dr. Charmaine Enns wrote in an Apr. 26 letter to Campbell River council.

As of Apr. 29, Campbell River council passed second reading of the bylaw.

Meanwhile, municipalities elsewhere are watching to see how things play out in Kamloops, Sicamous and Campbell River and Northern Beat has learned that numerous other councils are researching how a ban on public drug use might work in their own communities.

Six-month pause on regulating public drug use ‘not a great strategy’

So far, the B.C. Ministry of Health and its minister, Adrian Dix, have refrained from entering the bylaw debate fray and said little on the roll out of decriminalization, largely leaving public discourse to medical health officers at the regional health authorities. 

Medical health officers have asserted that any limitations on public consumption will increase risk to the drug user, since many severely addicted individuals are homeless and have few indoor places to consume drugs. 

“For those who live unhoused … the likelihood of dying from a toxic drug overdose is significantly increased.”

Charmaine Enns

“For those who live unhoused, and are challenged with substance use, pushing them further away from public spaces, which is often the only space they have, the likelihood of dying from a toxic drug overdose is significantly increased,” wrote Enns. 

Councils should consult with their health authorities when they’re passing a bylaw that touches on public health, conceded Kamloops’ Neustaeter. “But the opposite should happen as well, where health authorities should say to municipalities, ‘How do you see this impacting your communities? What can we do to make this successful?’ That should be a two-way dialogue and it being one-way street is not working.”

Medical health officers have asked councils to press pause for six months on enacting any bylaws banning drug use until data can be collected to determine if public drug consumption has increased with decriminalization or not.

“Asking municipalities to wait six months and see what happens while there’s some kind of indiscriminate measures happening in the background is just not good enough for this crisis point in time,” Neustaeter said.

“Asking municipalities to wait six months and see what happens … is just not good enough.”

Katie Neustaeter

“I am a supporter of harm reduction measures, but they have to have the infrastructure to support them to create safety for an entire community and not one singular population,” she said. 

“We, as councillors … are not unreasonable people,” said Baillie. “I’ve had friends die of overdoses. This is something that has touched our lives. But our duty here is to balance out other needs in our community. Just going on hold [for six months] is not a great strategy.”

Baillie said it’s not about ignoring the people with drug addictions who need help.

“I think what we’re saying is we’re just not convinced, and I’m not convinced, that this is the way to go about doing it,” he said.

“We’ve put the cart before the horse,” said Sicamous councillor Siobhan Rich in a council meeting. “I’m not against decriminalization, I want to make that very clear. What I think we need is support before we have to put all the pieces in [place].”

“We’ve put the cart before the horse.”

Siobhan Rich

Sicamous, a community of about 2,500 people known as the ‘houseboat capital of Canada,’ has virtually no addictions or mental health supports, besides access to overdose reversal Naloxone kits at the local pharmacy. The nearest overdose prevention site is a one or two-hour drive away in Kelowna or Kamloops. 

“What is being done is not enough,” said Sicamous councillor Beech. “It’s not fair to expose the public, and the families and the children to this.”

‘I don’t have any [compassion] left because I don’t have any protection.’

The more governments do nothing, leaving untrained citizens to deal with complex and escalating street disorder and addiction-fuelled encounters, the more people will be forced to fend for themselves, said Price-Baechle in Kamloops.

“I was painting my building, and I was nearly punched by someone who was on high on drugs,” she said, citing two other recent incidents of people wielding a taser and an airgun. 

“I was nearly punched by someone who was on high on drugs.”

Rebecca Price-Baechle

“This is unlawfulness and chaos and absolute anarchy. And it’s unacceptable,” she said.

In Dawson Creek, a citizens group formed to deal with rampant crime and a business owner was shot in Nanaimo when he tried to recover stolen property at an encampment in Nanaimo. 

“What’s going to happen is you’re going to push people to the edge. And when people get pushed to the edge because they have to defend their children, their property, their life, there’s no room for compassion. There’s no room for empathy. It’s evaporated,” said Price-Baechle. 

“I’m a compassionate, liberal, leftist person who grew up in Vancouver. I get it. But I don’t have any [compassion] left because I don’t have any protection.”

Decriminalization in BC versus Portugal: ‘Comparing apples to oranges’

In her letter to Campbell River council, Island Health’s Enns asserted that evidence from other jurisdictions shows decriminalization reduces crime, overdoses and “the social cost,” while increasing the number of people accessing treatment, without growing the number of people who use drugs. 

But the studies referenced in letters by Enns and Interior Health medical officers rely heavily on outcomes from Portugal’s drug strategy which – unlike B.C. – operates an exceptionally well-developed five pillar drug strategy comprising treatment, prevention, harm reduction, dissuasion and reintegration. The B.C. government also leans on Portugal’s success as proof decriminalization doesn’t increase drug use.

One study Enns referred to noted the challenge of comparing decriminalization results across jurisdictions with vastly different drug policies implemented in disparate circumstances, including some places with more comprehensive support services and others that involve decriminalization of cannabis, rather than hard addictive drugs like opioids.

For instance, when Portugal decriminalized personal possession of hard drugs in 2001, it already had a country-wide treatment and recovery system in place, with dissuasion as the anchor. In contrast, B.C. has only just begun to build out its adult treatment system, announcing a modest 195 new treatment-related ‘spaces’ over the next three years. And the B.C. government has no clear diversion strategy for people using drugs, and no easily accessible mental health and addictions treatment services to redirect them to even if it did.

“Decriminalization … doesn’t work if the rest of the intervention is not present.”

João Castel-Branco Goulão

In Portugal, trafficking is still a criminal offence, but while personal possession of hard drugs continues to be prohibited, sanctions are processed under administrative law, rather than criminal. And Portuguese citizens are not allowed to consume hard drugs in public. If found doing so, the drugs are confiscated and the individuals are brought before the dissuasion committee where their drug consumption, along with their whole life situation, is discussed to determine if they need treatment. If they choose treatment, it can be accessed immediately.

“Decriminalization is just a part of it. It doesn’t work if the rest of the intervention is not present,” João Castel-Branco Goulão, general director for Intervention on Addictive Behaviours and Dependencies in Portugal, told the B.C. health legislative committee last year.

“You can’t compare Portugal to us because it’s comparing apples and oranges,” said Forseth. “Until you have those resources available that local governments have been saying for a number of years now don’t exist, I don’t think we’re really going to solve this challenge.” 

Province-wide mental health and addictions treatment needed

The Cariboo regional district began lobbying the federal and provincial government for more mental health resources seven years ago, said Forseth, who is also the area ‘D’ director of the Cariboo Regional District. 

“It’s been like pushing a big boulder uphill. And we haven’t gotten anywhere,” he said.

There is widespread recognition that B.C. needs, but lacks, a province-wide treatment and recovery system. The service gaps are particularly egregious in rural communities and the North.

In 2021, the Union of BC Municipalities asked the province for “holistic” overdose action plans that legislated and funded decriminalization, de-stigmatization, safe supply and suitable medical treatments to address the opioid crisis and mental health issues connected to the homelessness and overdose deaths occurring in municipalities across B.C and Canada.

Back as far as 1994, the last time the BC NDP formed government, the province’s then Chief Coroner J. V. Cain recommended government establish detox, treatment and recovery facilities throughout the province, as well as develop standards, policies, procedures and service models for the care and treatment of “substance abusers.”

All of these tasks remain undone.

For the past several years Campbell River has asked the province to invest in health-authority-delivered mental health and substance use services, treatment and recovery services and supportive and transitional housing to address homelessness, a spokesperson for mayor Dahl said. 

So far, the city’s lobbying has been mostly fruitless. But maybe council’s luck will change. Since introducing the drug ban bylaw, Island Health chief medical officer Dr. Réka Gustafson and Mental Health and Addictions Minister Jennifer Whiteside have both asked to meet with Campbell River council. 

Decriminalization must be done in a way that supports entire community

Neustaeter said she is hugely respectful of the expertise of health authorities and grateful for them, particularly considering how gruelling the health crises have been on them. 

“But we, at the local level, are experts, by definition, in our community and we are speaking with a collective voice on their behalf that says we need solutions that work for everyone,” Neustaeter said.

We, at the local level, are [community] experts … and we are speaking with a collective voice on their behalf.”

Katie Neustaeter

No one wants to endanger or shame drug users, she said.

“But there’s a reason why drugs themselves do have a stigma around them. They are harmful. They are damaging. They destroy lives.”  

B.C. needs to work towards implementing its own four pillars drug strategy, Neustaeter said. Like Portugal, B.C. adopted the pillars strategy in the early 2000s. Unlike Portugal, B.C.’s public health efforts have focussed almost singularly on the harm reduction pillar, to the near absence of the other three – education/prevention, treatment/recovery and enforcement.

“We need to ensure that [decriminalization] is done in a way that supports all of community, that we’re looking at all of these intersecting problems and creating solutions for success … that we don’t just have harm reduction, but that we also have enforcement, treatment and prevention to ensure that we begin to move the dial and see the trajectory of this crisis turn,” said Neustaeter.

These are non-partisan issues, requiring cooperation between communities and all levels of government, she said, adding Kamloops wants to be part of that collaboration.

“We are so deep into this crisis at this point, that we should be taking every opportunity for partnership and strength that we can find in this province.”

Municipalities can support the building up of those other three pillars, Neurstaeter said. “That’s what we’re here for. We want to contribute to those solutions. But we certainly do need to see that there is a structure for success.” 

‘Who cares what they say’

Back in front of Kamloops council, business owner and parent Price-Baechle was adamant in support of the ban. 

“I know when passing this bylaw, that you’re going to get pushback from Interior Health and from Pivot [Legal] in Vancouver. But this isn’t Vancouver. And who cares what they say,” she said.

“Sometimes you have to do something to make a point … because of what it means to us and because of what it means to the public.”

“You’re going to get pushback … but sometimes you have to do something to make a point.”

Rebecca Price-Baechle

Neustaeter said councils don’t have to choose between creating safety for those who use drugs versus the rest of the community who does not. 

“We can create solutions that work for everyone and wrap around everyone and begin to alleviate this crisis,” she said. “But it has to be done with a holistic approach that doesn’t just care for one portion of the population.” 

“This bylaw is important,” Price-Baechle told Kamloops council. “It’s important for hope. It’s important for the community to believe that you’re doing something.

“It might not be perfect. It might not work. It might get thrown out in court. But it’s the precedence. It’s the principle. We have to feel safe. We don’t feel safe.”