North Island medical health officer Dr. Charmaine Enns asked Campbell River city council to hold off for six months before passing a bylaw making it illegal to consume drugs on public property.
“This would allow staff to monitor the situation to determine if there is, in fact, an increase in public drug use and give council the time to seek sound public health advice,” Enns says in a Jan. 25 letter to city council.
Passage of the bylaw on Jan. 26 was rushed to coincide with an exemption from federal drug laws that came into effect Jan. 31 that allows British Columbians 18 and over to possess up to 2.5 grams of street drugs – including cocaine and fentanyl – without fear of penalty or seizure, provided the drugs are for personal use.
Council passed the bylaw to counteract this three-year federal exemption given to the province of British Columbia at the province’s request. It would fine people consuming drugs within the City of Campbell River up to $200.
City officials have been wrestling with the problem of unruly behaviour and homelessness downtown associated with addiction and have been frustrated by the inability to implement measures that have a meaningful impact.
“With discussions with the RCMP, they have indicated these two bylaws would be beneficial for them to keep the peace and law and order not just for downtown, but for the for the community as a whole,” Coun. Doug Chapman said,
“I mean, speeding laws are there for the 10 per cent of the people who speed. So you know, unfortunately, we have to have these bylaws for the small group that would persist in consuming illegal drugs on public property. And this would give the RCMP the tools they need to help us with that.”
Council rejected Enns’ last minute request and passed third reading of the bylaw at its Jan. 26 regular council meeting. A motion to receive Dr. Enns’ letter and its appeal to council to take the time and gather more facts was defeated.
“Receipt” of a letter is a procedural step that formally recognizes and puts into the public record that council has received and read the message contained in it.
“At this time, we are not anticipating an increase in public drug use in communities as this has been a long standing issue and the status quo hasn’t served as an effective deterrent,” Enns says in her letter.
“Council’s haste with due consideration of the evidence, impacts and other tools to address the issues of public substance use will not serve the community or its citizens well.”
The intent of decriminalization of possession of small amounts of illicit substances for personal use is to reduce the stigma associated with substance use and to reinforce that an individual’s substance use is a health issue rather than a criminal one, Enns says. This approach further breaks down the barriers that prevent people from getting support and creating new pathways to life-saving services.
In preparation for this policy change, the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions is working with the BC Centre for Disease Control to develop guidance for local governments on taking a public health approach to substance use, including public consumption. These resources will be available this spring, and will provide tools to assist staff in formulating evidence-informed recommendations to council.