A Canadian province allowed drug use in public. It didn’t go as planned

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell Jun17,2024
Canada is in the grip of a fentanyl overdose crisis. In Vancouver, radical experiments are underway to prevent deaths. Watch Canada’s Fentanyl Warning on Tuesday 11 June at 9:30pm on SBS or stream via
In 2023, British Columbia became the first Canadian province to decriminalise the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs in an effort to combat the spiralling opioid overdose crisis.
Under a three-year pilot program, adult users were allowed to carry up to 2.5g of heroin, methamphetamine, ecstasy, or crack cocaine, and could use them in certain public places without facing criminal charges.
At the time, Canada’s minister of health and addictions Caroline Bennett said the policy would serve as a template for other provinces to address the rising number of opioid overdoses happening throughout the country.

Over 80 per cent of accidental opioid-related deaths involved fentanyl, a pharmaceutical painkiller that is 50 times more potent than heroin and is increasingly being laced into street drugs.

A man walks into a room for supervised drug consumption with a metal table, two orance chairs and a yellow cabinet inside

Possession and use of less than 2.5g of drugs remain legal in private residences and at supervised consumption sites. Source: SBS / Dateline

But only a little over a year into the program, British Columbia abruptly reversed the course of its experiment in response to complaints about soaring drug use in parks and restaurants while police were unable to address it.

At the end of April, the government made drug use in all public spaces a crime again.

What happened?

Advocates for decriminalisation have long argued that prosecuting people for drug use doesn’t work and puts them at higher risk of overdose from toxic street drugs. They argue public health policies should focus on reducing stigma and access to safe substances.

Since 2021, the number of annual opioid-related deaths in Canada has surged from 3,000 to over 6,200.
Fentanyl has been the primary culprit behind accidental overdoses, particularly among young people who have ingested a lethal amount of the opioid mixed into recreational drugs.

With the highest rate of fentanyl-caused deaths in the country, British Columbia has been the epicentre of the crisis. In 2016, the province declared a public health emergency. Since then, more than 14,000 people have died from toxic drugs, according to the province’s coroner’s service.

A banner for a campaign for more awareness about drug overdose shows photos of the deceased young people

In Canada, 15 to 24-year-olds are the fastest-growing group being hospitalised from opioid overdoses. Credit: SBS Dateline

Decriminalising drugs was the latest step in a series of measures officials have taken to fight the overdoses, such as opening safe consumption sites and dispensing opiate alternatives or safe amounts of fentanyl to opioid addicts.

But the policy came under fire from residents and authorities who labelled it a “harmful experiment” that failed to adequately safeguard the public.
Just months into the pilot program, stories started emerging about drug paraphernalia found near playgrounds and people using drugs in public spaces such as parks and beaches. Yet police had no powers to intervene if the person carried the legally allowed amount.
“In the wake of decriminalisation, there are many of those locations where we have absolutely no authority to address that problematic drug use, because the person appears to be in possession of less than 2.5 grams,” Vancouver Police deputy chief Fiona Wilson said in her testimony at the parliament on 15 April.
“So, if you have someone who is with their family at the beach, and there’s a person next to them smoking crack cocaine, it’s not a police matter.”

However, advocates say the British Columbia government created a false narrative to the public that decriminalisation was the sole solution that would reduce the rising number of drug fatalities.

DJ Larkin, co-counsel for The Harm Reduction Nurses Association and executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, says the policy did not fundamentally address the toxic drug supply, which is the driving force behind the crisis.
“To be effective in reducing harm and supporting healthy communities, [decriminalisation] must be accompanied by additional actions,” Larkin told SBS Dateline in an email.

“When we see public drug use, it is because people do not have housing, services or safe places to go. People want to stay alive, not die alone and out of sight.”

A man wearing a dark winter coat and a red scarf is squatting in front of a girl in a pink hat

British Columbia Premier David Eby cited public safety as the reason to re-criminalised drug use in public spaces. Source: Getty / Anadolu Agency

Next steps

British Columbia Premier David Eby cited safety and mounting public frustration over “disorder” as the reason behind the decision to make drug use illegal again in all public spaces, including hospitals and on transit.
“Addiction is a health issue, it is not a criminal law issue, and that principle is what the entire decriminalisation project was about, ” Eby said in a statement from 26 April.
Possession and use of less than 2.5g of drugs remain legal in a private residence or at supervised consumption sites.

The province’s public safety minister Mike Farnworth said the government should instead adopt public drug use policies similar to those already in place for public smoking, alcohol and cannabis, where public use is prohibited and strongly regulated.

The decision to reverse course in British Columbia has plunged Toronto’s plans to decriminalise the possession of illegal drugs for personal use into uncertainty.
The city’s proposal was set to go further than British Columbia, by also shielding young people from criminal charges and extending the exemption to all drugs for personal possession. But last month, the federal government rejected its request.
The president of Canada’s Harm Reduction Nurses Association Corey Ranger remains committed to creating communities where all people, whether they use drugs or not, can access safety and well-being.
“To keep everyone safer – including nurses and all healthcare workers – we need widespread access to safer use spaces, including inhalation services,” Ranger said.

“We can achieve safety without resorting to punitive measures.”

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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