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A police officer stands at a barricade restricting access to a block of East Hastings Street in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, on April 6.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

An hour down the road from Vancouver is the U.S. port city of Bellingham, Wash.

Known for its craft beer and hippie vibe, it has long held a reputation for being one of the most progressive, laid-back cities in Washington State. Over the years, it has been a reliable ally of the Democratic Party at election time.

Which is why a recent move by the city council there is somewhat shocking: a decision to authorize police to arrest people who are injecting, ingesting or inhaling drugs such as fentanyl or methamphetamine on downtown streets.

Like many, if not most cities in the U.S., Bellingham is facing a drug crisis. It has been sympathetic to arguments from public-health experts that arresting people for drug use is stigmatizing and discourages them from getting treatment. It also drives users into darker corners of society to consume, where responding to overdoses is more difficult. Consequently, there is more death with this approach – or so the argument goes.

But there is a corollary problem with that approach: open drug use in the downtown core of cities scares people away. It hurts small businesses trying to survive. It turns once-thriving blocks into boarded-up zones of misery, inhabited primarily by drug users and sellers.

Bellingham has said: Enough!

The council understands this isn’t a panacea. This approach has had mixed results elsewhere. But the city wants the public to understand that this isn’t their own version of America’s failed war on drugs – it had to do something because the public was fed up. People could no longer tolerate going downtown and seeing drugged-out people shooting up heroin outside stores.

The idea is to push people who are arrested into treatment programs, even while accepting that this approach has failed elsewhere, including in the city of Seattle. A recent report found that in a majority of cases, a defendant arrested for using drugs and who agreed to out-of-custody addiction treatment services ended up fleeing the program within the first 24 hours.

This problem resonates especially strongly in British Columbia, where there is an emotional debate going on around the province’s decision in January to decriminalize the possession of personal amounts of illicit drugs – on a trial basis.

NDP Premier David Eby was recently confronted with tough questions from the BC United Party (formerly the BC Liberal Party) about the mess this new policy has created in many cities. Municipalities in the interior of the province, in particular, have seen a dramatic spike in open drug use in parks, and on beaches and playgrounds.

Mayors in places like Kamloops and Kelowna are now confronting situations like Bellingham’s: people are afraid to go downtown or to public spaces because of the chance, or even likelihood, that there will be someone there taking hard drugs and often displaying erratic behaviour.

The public wants these people arrested. Health authorities say this is backward thinking that will only lead to more overdose deaths. Politicians are dealing with angry voters and business owners threatening to close their shops and flee town. The reality is, most smaller cities in Canada don’t have the resources to properly treat and rehabilitate all the drug users in their communities.

It is pretty clear by now that the drug epidemic in Canada and the U.S. is one that no one really has an answer for. The experts are at odds with a public that is fed up with solutions that seem to be creating more problems, not resolving them. They see their rights and privileges to go freely about their cities being denied because of a failure by political leaders to get a grip on the drug crisis.

I have enormous sympathy for all involved in this horrible, wretched problem. Faced with angry questions in the legislature, Premier Eby said: “Nobody wants this activity affecting our kids and we will do something about it.” But what? Honestly. What can be done?

On the other side of the debate, health officers in the B.C. Interior argued in an April letter to the Premier that punitive approaches to the problem will only perpetuate the issues we are trying to reduce.

“These harms also include stigma and shame that force people to conceal their substance use,” the letter said, while pleading to give the decriminalization experiment a chance for at least six months.

The end of six months of decriminalization would be reached later this summer. It defies credibility that the drug crisis will show any signs of abating by then. Meantime, the demands for action by the public will get louder and more strident.

It could be a long, hot summer in B.C., in more ways than one.

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