Scrutiny of B.C.’s drug decriminalization pilot program intensifies as fall election looms

Scrutiny of B.C.’s drug decriminalization pilot is growing, with public safety concerns that have put the spotlight squarely on the governing NDP as the province moves toward a fall election. 

Earlier this week, 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.”

The decriminalization pilot was introduced in January 2023 and allows adult drug users in B.C. to carry up to 2.5 grams of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and ecstasy for personal use without facing criminal charges. Relying on an exemption granted by Health Canada under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, it also allows for open drug use in some public spaces.

The province did try to bring in legislation in October to limit public drug use, but it was blocked by the courts. 

Premier David Eby said he shares the concerns over public safety and intends to address the issue. 

“Simply because we have compassion and concern about those struggling with addiction, does not mean that we need to give up our public spaces, does not mean that we have to have parks and playgrounds that are less safe,” said Eby.

The province’s options include ending the program, or possibly asking the federal government to bring in more changes to the pilot.

A white woman wearing a police uniform looks at the camera.
VPD Deputy Chief Constable Fiona Wilson told a parliamentary committe on health the limit on police powers to address the public consumption of illicit drugs is affecting public safety. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

A meeting between Jennifer Whiteside, B.C.’s minister of mental health and addictions, and her federal counterpart Ya’ara Saks is scheduled for next week.

In a statement echoing Eby, Whiteside defended decriminalization as a way to destigmatize addiction and treat it as a healthcare issue instead of a criminal one.

“We maintain that having compassion for individuals struggling with addiction does not preclude the need to ensure the safety of workers and members of the public,” said Whiteside.

B.C.’s official opposition has been highlighting illicit drug use in hospitals and the lack of guard rails around the decriminalization pilot.

“We knew it would result in exactly what’s happening right now, which is an explosion of drug use taking place in SkyTrains, in restaurants and public spaces,” said B.C. United leader Kevin Falcon. “It’s been a horrific failure and the thing that is important to recognize is we’re not seeing improved results.”

Advocates for harm reduction say the answer is not to scrap the pilot, because it is doing some good. 

“Let’s get to the table and make this work because I want to tell you this, the other way is [drug users go] into isolation. So if [changes are] to alleviate some public consumption in public spaces, I’m all for that,” said Guy Felicella, a harm reduction and recovery expert.

The decriminalization pilot was introduced as a measure to address B.C.’s severe overdose crisis. More than 14,000 people have died of toxic drugs in the province since the crisis was declared a public health emergency in April 2016.


Posted in CBC