Ottawa approves B.C.’s request to recriminalize use of illicit drugs in public spaces

Minister of Addictions and Mental Health Ya’ara Saks said Tuesday the federal government has approved the B.C. government’s request to recriminalize the use of illicit drugs in public spaces.The province is just over a year into a pilot program that allows adults to carry up to 2.5 grams of drugs for personal use without facing criminal charges. The program was made possible through an exemption granted by Health Canada under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.B.C. Premier David Eby asked nearly two weeks ago for an adjustment to the exemption order to recriminalize the use of those drugs in public spaces, such as hospitals and restaurants.Saks told reporters outside the House of Commons that she has approved the request and it will take effect “immediately.””We’ve moved forward with B.C. on this with a clear lens on public health and public safety, because we know that we need to address the opioid crisis and the overdose deaths that we’re seeing as a public health issue,” she said.”That being said, communities need to be safe.”While adults would still be allowed to carry small amounts of illicit drugs and use them in private, they could be arrested for using them in public.Treating drug addiction as a mental health issue shouldn’t mean that ‘anything goes,’ said Mike Farnworth, B.C.’s minister of public safety and solicitor general, seen at a press conference in Victoria in April 2023. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)B.C.’s Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth welcomed Ottawa’s decision.”Addiction is a health matter, not a criminal justice one, but that doesn’t mean that anything goes,” he told reporters in Victoria.The pilot, which began in January of last year, is part of B.C.’s response to the public health emergency declared eight years ago in response to a rise in deaths from toxic, illicit drugs.More than 14,000 people have died in B.C. since the emergency was declared in 2016, largely due to the opioid fentanyl. At least 42,000 people have died of opioid overdoses right across the country in that same time period.By reducing the stigma associated with drug use, officials say they hope to provide better access to lifesaving care along with a less deadly safe supply.Concerns about public safetyBut this approach has come with criticism about a lack of guardrails.On April 15, Vancouver Police Deputy Chief Fiona Wilson testified at a House of Commons health committee hearing about how the pilot is limiting police response to problematic public drug use, including inside hospitals and at bus stops.”In the wake of decriminalization, 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,” Wilson said. “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.”WATCH | Decriminalization ‘not impacting drug supply’: Vancouver deputy police chief Farnworth was pressed Tuesday to say whether the new policy effectively puts an end to decriminalization in the province.”What we’ve done is respond to community concerns,” he said.”They shouldn’t have to put up with open drug use. That’s never what decriminalization was about and that’s the changes that have been made.”The federal Conservatives have seized on the issue in recent weeks, arguing that B.C.’s request is a sign that drug decriminalization has failed. Leader Pierre Poilievre has called the Liberal government’s approach to the opioid crisis “extremist” and “wacko.”When asked Tuesday if the government should consider going further and by completely scaling back the program, Saks argued that the government has not made hard drugs legal.”Decriminalization is about ensuring that people don’t have to face stigma and actually go to get help,” she said.WATCH | Minister accuses opposition of pursuing a dehumanizing debate on opioid crisis Minister accuses opposition of pursuing a dehumanizing debate on drug decriminalizationMinister of Mental Health and Addictions Ya’ara Saks says drug decriminalization is about ending stigma and getting help for users.Saks railed against what she called the “politicization” of the opioid crisis.”I’m frustrated that the opposition has made this a dehumanizing debate for those who actually need our help and that they don’t recognize we need a full suite of tools to actually save lives,” she said.After Saks’ announcement Tuesday, Poilievre continued to take aim at the Liberals over the decriminalization issue. He asked Prime Minister Trudeau about the state of a similar request to decriminalize possession in Toronto.”Will he … rule out decriminalization in Canada’s biggest city?” Poilievre asked.Toronto put forward its request in 2022 but it has yet to be approved.Responding to Poilievre’s question on Tuesday, Trudeau said the government will only work with provinces on approving any legal exemptions that could lead to decriminalization.

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