B.C. cities banning public drug use

Oct 27, 2023

Over the last months, several cities in British Columbia have proposed and implemented bylaws to restrict and ban illicit drug use in public spaces as a response to the exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act granted to the province by Health Canada, under which adults in B.C. are not subject to criminal charges for the personal possession of small amounts of certain illegal drugs.

Earlier in September, Nelson city council approved a new bylaw prohibiting the use of illicit drugs in 12 public city areas, including five parks. “The use of illicit drugs in parks is likely to interfere with the public’s use and enjoyment of parks, and in particular is likely to disrupt recreational and other leisure activities, disturb the peace, comfort and enjoyment of people using the park in their leisure time, and result in unsettling behaviour which causes some members of the public to leave or avoid the park,” states the bylaw.

Other B.C. cities have also passed similar bylaws. In June, Port Coquitlam council amended its bylaw on the use of substances in spaces like parks and playgrounds to include all public areas. “Fentanyl doesn’t mix with children’s playgrounds. It’s just not appropriate. We’re not going to allow it in our city. We’re going to address it to the best of our ability and, hopefully, the province will take some action as well,” said Port Coquitlam Mayor Brad West in his interview with Global News.

Furthermore, Kamloops city council approved the first three readings of a bylaw amendment looking to ban open drug use on sidewalks and within 100 metres of public spaces including parks, playgrounds, urban forests and beaches, sidewalks, water playgrounds, and wading pools.

“Expressly exempted from this prohibition are all supervised consumption and overdose prevention locations and facilities operated by or on behalf of Interior Health, BC Housing, or any other governmental authority,” reads the staff report.

However, B.C. Interior Health had previously requested the local governments to pause implementing bylaws to ban open drug use in parks. “We, Interior Health Medical Health Officers recommend a six-month observation period to monitor the effects of decriminalization on public consumption before implementing new bylaws or modifying existing ones,” reads the letter sent in April.

The province did pass an amendment to the decriminalization policy effective as of Sept. 18, 2023 that specifically prohibits possession of illicit drugs within 15 metres of any child play area such as a playground structure, water play area or skate parks. 

Health experts and harm reduction advocates have voiced concerns that banning drug use from public areas essentially re-criminalizes it, potentially forcing individuals to consume illicit drugs alone and in private, increasing the risk of overdose and death.

“Punitive approaches (usually ticketing/fines, which can escalate to jail if someone cannot afford to pay) would be perpetuating the harms we are trying to reduce with this exemption,” the letter continues. “These harms also include stigma and shame that force people to conceal their substance use and use alone, increasing their risk of dying from substance poisoning.”

With the addition of the amendment, as of Sept 18th, it does mean that police officers are once more able to enforce the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act if they are to find anyone who is in possession of illegal drugs in these public areas which are set up for children to play. 

“Our government is committed to breaking down barriers and connecting people to the supports they need,” said Jennifer Whiteside, B.C.’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions. “We requested this amendment from Health Canada to ensure that families feel safe in their community while continuing to use every tool available to fight the toxic-drug crisis and save lives.”