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Good morning. Wendy Cox in Vancouver.

A year ago, on Jan. 31, British Columbia became the first jurisdiction in Canada to decriminalize small amounts for personal consumption of many illegal street drugs: cocaine, including crack and powder, opioids, meth and MDMA. Police could no longer seize drugs from users, and consumption in public, as long as it was away from school grounds, child-care facilities, in airports or in vehicles operated by a minor, was no longer a criminal offence.

The goal, the government said, was to reduce the stigma that prevents drug users from seeking help. In a news release, the government noted that it was following best practices in places like Portugal and Oregon.

“I think one of the most important elements of success will be a sense that we are contributing to a change in the public discussion around stigma and that we see more people coming forward for care and treatment,” Jennifer Whiteside, B.C.’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, said a year ago.

The NDP government got a change in the public discussion, just not the one it was hoping for.

As Justine Hunter writes today, the government is in retreat.

The NDP was hammered in the legislature last spring. Smaller city mayors tried to figure out workarounds to the law because of concerns over public disorder, and news of open drug use in children’s play areas, transit shelters and business entrances prompted outrage. Opponents caustically noted that in Vancouver, one could legally smoke meth on a beach but not drink a beer.

In October, the government introduced a law that significantly rolled back the places where users could consume their drugs in public, adding outdoor recreation areas such as parks, beaches and sports fields, as well as within a six-metre radius of building entrances and bus stops.

“Our compassion, our understanding that that [criminal justice] system doesn’t work to address addiction issues does not mean that we need to tolerate public drug use in our communities, especially in areas used by kids – playgrounds, parks,” Premier David Eby said at the time.

But a Charter challenge put the roll-back law on pause in December after a judge concluded that the government’s new restrictions could cause “irreparable harm.”

This week, the government filed an appeal to that ruling, arguing that the judge’s decision overreached and failed to respect government legislative authority. In effect, the province is arguing that it has the right to walk back the policy that, a year ago, it had taken great pains to get federal approval to enact.

News of the appeal came at the same time as the coroner released last year’s death toll from the toxic drug crisis. Another record, 2,511 lives lost.

The new year begins with little consensus on what to do next.

B.C.’s coroner, Lisa Lapointe, is leaving her job at the end of the month steadfast in her belief that the recommendations of her expert panel late last year are necessary to save lives. The panel urged a dramatic expansion of B.C.’s safer-supply program by offering a broader range of pharmaceutical alternatives to more users and to allow those users to get those drugs without a prescription. The government rejected the recommendations before her news conference was even over.

Mr. Eby doubled down on that refusal again this week.

“I do not believe that the distribution of incredibly toxic opioid drugs without the supervision of a medical professional in British Columbia is the way forward and the way out of the toxic drug crisis,’’ he said Thursday.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported last year that Portugal’s experience from years of decriminalization is not having the impact hoped for and its ground-breaking policies are now being openly questioned as overdose rates have hit record highs and fewer drug users have been sent to treatment, partly the result of a drop in funding.

The Globe’s Nathan VanderKlippe reported last week that Oregon’s death toll rose by 17 per cent in the year leading up to May, 2023, far greater than the national average increase of less than 1 per cent. The state has had faster growth in teen drug deaths than any other state and legislators are scrambling to write a new set of laws amid a public revolt against the state’s three-year-old experiment with rapid drug-policy liberalization.

B.C. politicians, squeezed between the failure of Canada’s strict prohibitive drugs laws of the past and the unintended consequences of B.C.’s efforts to liberalize them, wonder how to walk a middle path while bringing the public along with them.

“I’m not sure that fully pulling back on decriminalization is the answer,” Vancouver city councillor Peter Meiszner told Justine.

“But I do think that the public has the right to expect that there are spaces where you won’t be seeing open drug use.”

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