Opinion: B.C. municipalities struggling with rising crime and homelessness are pushing back against drug decriminalization
When municipalities like Penticton, Kelowna and Campbell River push back against provincial drug policies, it’s a reminder that British Columbia is an outlier.
It is the only province in Canada experimenting with decriminalization of small amounts of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA for personal use. And it may be the only jurisdiction where decriminalization is not part of a comprehensive and funded plan to curb consumption and treat addiction.
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Portugal was the first to drop criminal sanctions for possessing small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use more than 20 years ago. Since then, it has gone from having the highest incidence of drug use in Europe to among the lowest.
But what decriminalization proponents often neglect to mention is something that the architect of Portugal’s plan, João Goulão, repeatedly says.
Decriminalization isn’t a panacea. It is only one way to help connect drug users with a fully funded menu of services ranging from counselling to multi-year residential treatment, on the recommendation of experts at the commission for the dissuasion of drug use.
The other point that Goulão consistently makes is that decriminalization happened only after a lengthy period of countrywide public consultations.
A similar public consultation happened in Oregon before a 2020 referendum where voters approved decriminalization as part of a package of drug policies similar to Portugal’s. That package included an expansion of treatment and recovery services, and a funding formula requiring the state to use marijuana sales tax revenues plus any savings accruing from the decriminalization (that is reduced spending on prisons, court and policing costs).
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And, like Portugal, decriminalization didn’t mean no consequences. While criminal penalties are waived, anyone found with small quantities of drugs must either pay a $100 fine or have a health assessment done at an addiction recovery centre.
Contrast that to British Columbia. Its three-year decriminalization experiment, which began in February, was driven by a coterie of academics, politicians and activists centred in Vancouver. The city and the Downtown Eastside, in particular, has long been the testing ground for policies that have never been put to a vote.
Given the current state of that community, other municipal leaders have reason to suspect their wisdom and fear the consequences.
Late last month, Penticton council introduced a bylaw banning illicit drug use in public places along with a call for Victoria and Ottawa to provide more funding for mental health and addictions services and housing.
Between 2019 and 2021, calls to the RCMP to respond to mental-health crises increased by 56 per cent. By 2021, half of the fire department’s emergency calls were for medical issues with many related to overdoses.
In nearby Kelowna, Mayor Tom Dyas wants changes as well. Rather than a bylaw, he’s asked the province to add playgrounds and park areas frequented by children to its list of locations where drug possession remains illegal.
In January, Campbell River banned drug possession in public places and imposed a $200 fine. A month later, those bylaws were repealed after Vancouver-based Pivot Legal Society launched a court challenge.
“Criminalizing public drug use will not stop people from using drugs — it will just make it more dangerous,” Pivot said in a statement after the bylaws were repealed. “In this way, the bylaws mimic the harms of criminalization and frustrate the aims of decriminalization.”
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But is decriminalization effective?
Data collection has been promised as part of B.C.’s pilot program. But it’s not entirely clear what will be measured since the program’s main goal is to reduce stigma with the hope that it will make it easier for people to seek help.
Portugal’s data isn’t comparable. Unlike here, drug users there have access to a high-level of wraparound services. But its legislation also allows for fines, and even jail terms, if drug users fail to follow the dissuasion commission’s recommendations.
Oregon might be a better comparison, although its legislation still has penalties for personal possession. But it doesn’t have data — something that the state auditor pointed out in a rather scathing January report on decriminalization’s implementation.
Among the report’s recommendations is that the state government “identify and document gaps that prevent detailed metrics from being implemented that would track the overall effectiveness and impact.”
But there’s another caveat to any comparison with Oregon.
“We are five, six, seven years behind British Columbia in when fentanyl became so prominent in communities,” Erica Heartquist of Oregon Health Services wrote in an emailed response to my questions. “Which, of course, is something frightening to think of here because of the upwards trends that were seen there (in B.C.) for years.”
Mayors and councillors beyond Metro Vancouver and Victoria are also frightened because their communities are already experiencing the chaos that results from senior governments’ failure to adequately address addictions and mental health, but poverty and homelessness.