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B.C.'s retreat from decriminalization has raised questions about whether Toronto will proceed as planned with its bid to decriminalize drugs for personal use.Jackie Dives/The New York Times News Service

B.C. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry is calling on communities to provide the missing supports that widespread public drug use exposed during decriminalization, including more safe consumption sites.

Premier David Eby has asked Ottawa to effectively recriminalize possession and use of illicit drugs in public places, just 15 months into a three-year pilot project that was Canada’s first decriminalization trial. After defending the policy as a measure intended to save lives amid a toxic drug crisis that is killing an average of seven British Columbians each day, Mr. Eby retreated because of a widespread backlash over public disorder related to illicit drug use in hospitals, parks and other public spaces.

The retreat has raised questions about whether Toronto will proceed as planned with its bid to decriminalize drugs for personal use.

Dr. Henry, a leading proponent of decriminalization, said Tuesday the initiative in B.C. is not lost, but will now require resources that have been lacking since the start.

“The public-safety issue has shown us that the increasing number of people who are underhoused, or homeless, who are publicly visible, they need safe places to go and we need our communities to step up and provide the services,” she said in an interview. There are roughly four dozen overdose-prevention sites in B.C., and less than half of them provide the option to smoke drugs.

“I think it would be a shame if we went back to charging people who are using substances outside because they have no place to go,” she said. “We need to focus on making sure that people who are more vulnerable have a safe place to go, where they’ll be supported and not die alone in back alleys.”

B.C.’s retreat on drug decriminalization spurs concern about fates of similar plans

If Ottawa approves the province’s request to amend the drug law exemption underpinning B.C.’s decriminalization, people will be able to use a handful of illicit substances inside their own homes, in their tents if they are living in sanctioned parks, or at drug-checking or supervised consumption sites.

Fiona Wilson, president of the B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police, expects charges for possession of small amounts of illicit drugs to return to the same levels that existed prior to the decriminalization trial, if the province’s request is approved.

“We will continue to keep a close eye on the number of charges that Crown counsel approves with respect to simple possession. I expect that those numbers will go back to where they were before decriminalization,” she said in an interview.

The B.C. government told Health Canada that in the first six months of decriminalization, there was a 76-per-cent decrease in possession offences compared with the previous four-year average of the same February-to-July period.

Ms. Wilson, who also serves as deputy chief of the Vancouver Police Department, said officers were already using their discretion to avoid criminalizing drug use before the province’s trial began. “But when we do come across matters of problematic public consumption, our police officers will once again have the tools to address those situations as they arise in our communities.”

Since the province’s decriminalization experiment began on Jan. 31, 2023, adults in British Columbia are not being arrested or charged for possessing small amounts of certain illegal drugs most commonly associated with overdoses.

On Friday, the province asked Ottawa to put in place a new prohibition that will give police the power to force people to stop using or leave the area if they are caught anywhere in public, including hospitals, restaurants, transit, parks and beaches.

Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow would not say Tuesday whether she thought the rollback in B.C. should mean her city scaling back or changing its own bid for decriminalization.

“I’m eager to look at the results from the experience learned from B.C. and I’ve been consulting with doctors … of course, our medical officer of health, so that there will be a good conversation as to what’s our path forward,” Ms. Chow told reporters when asked at an unrelated event whether tighter rules were needed.

“But I think much more important is dealing with the homelessness, the mental health and the treatment programs. Far more important.”

Chilliwack Mayor Ken Popove, who co-chairs B.C.’s caucus of urban mayors, said Mr. Eby had no choice but to beat a retreat because of the consistent message from communities about problems with open drug use. While he welcomed the change, he said the province needs to do more to help people who use drugs access addictions treatment.

“The province really has to step up their wraparound services,” he said. “In my end of the Fraser Valley, we’ve got 12 detox beds for 1.5 million people. Well, you do the math – it just doesn’t work.”

With files from Oliver Moore.

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