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When the B.C. government convinced Ottawa to allow the province to commence a three-year experiment to decriminalize the possession of hard drugs, it believed it was pursuing a progressive, enlightened path, amid an ever-worsening drug crisis.

What Premier David Eby and his NDP government have quickly discovered, however, is just how fraught and complex an issue the drug emergency in B.C. (and across the country, for that matter) truly is.

It wasn’t long after the decriminalization initiative commenced on Jan. 31, 2023, that many cities and towns around the province began to hear complaints about a proliferation in open drug use, particularly in areas frequented by children and seniors. By the fall, the outcry was deafening, leaving the NDP with little option but to act.

In October, it introduced legislation that expanded on existing Health Canada regulations prohibiting the consumption of heroin, crack cocaine, meth, fentanyl and other hard drugs on school premises, playgrounds, skating parks and wading pools. And in recognition of the complaints it was getting from municipal leaders, the NDP also introduced legislation expanding upon Ottawa’s regulations, imposing six-to-15-metre bubble zones around the areas where the federal government had prohibited drug use, plus adding a host of other sites, including bus shelters, beaches and parks.

Enter the Harm Reduction Nurses Association, which sought an injunction against the B.C. legislation on the grounds it would simply drive drug users back into the shadows to consume, where they have a greater chance of dying because no one is around if and when they get into trouble.

On Dec. 29, 2023, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Christopher Hinkson issued a significant ruling on the matter – one that has put the government back on its heels, and at the same time infuriated many municipal politicians who believe the court is out of touch with society on the drug issue.

To the surprise of some, Justice Hinkson sided with the nurses. While acknowledging the very real apprehensions of the public and political leaders about the problems associated with open drug use, he said ultimately those concerns had to be considered subservient to the public safety risks inherent in moving drug users back into hidden areas where death often follows.

He also acknowledged that the plaintiff was justified in its worry that members’ jobs would be made more dangerous because the outreach they conducted would have to take place in more isolated locations.

At first blush, I didn’t agree with Justice Hinkson’s decision. Open drug use has unquestionably led to the degradation of public spaces in many cities and towns, some of which have introduced their own bylaws prohibiting public drug consumption in certain locations. Presumably, those bylaws can still be enforced and are not impacted by this injunction.

But in reading his judgment, what I found was profound empathy for the drug users in our society. As Justice Hinkson acknowledged, we are in the midst of a declared public-health emergency. In B.C., six people are dying a day, on average, from an overdose. The idea behind decriminalization is to help destigmatize drug use and stop throwing people in jail for possession, which only makes drug recovery, should a person seek it, that much harder.

I support decriminalization as well. What I didn’t appreciate, however, were the limitations it would have as a possible remedy when a jurisdiction doesn’t have enough treatment and recovery spaces to help all those folks who need it. It almost guarantees that the decriminalization experiment will be a failure.

But there are other problems.

Many towns and cities in B.C. complain about open drug use, but will not support the opening of a supervised consumption site in their area. You can’t have it both ways: you can’t say you want drug users to stop using in public but not support opening a safe place for them to go when they want to consume.

There are only 47 safe consumption sites in B.C., most of which are located in urban centres. That’s not nearly enough.

More than 13,000 people have died in B.C. from a drug overdose in the past six years. It is a mind-boggling number. The B.C. government needs to be applauded for trying public policy solutions such as decriminalization in its effort to make inroads in reducing the death toll.

We need to be constantly reminded that those who are dying are suffering from an illness. We should be doing everything we can to help them, not shoo them away to dark places where they can’t be seen or heard.

A B.C. Supreme Court justice has just reminded us of that responsibility. We should all think about it.

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