B.C. government says changes to decriminalization regulations coming this fall

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry addresses delegates at the 2023 Union of B.C. Municipalities convention.  (Courtesy UBCM - image credit)
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry addresses delegates at the 2023 Union of B.C. Municipalities convention. (Courtesy UBCM - image credit)

The B.C. government promised changes later this year to regulations around public drug use while defending their overall approach to decriminalization at a packed opening session of the 2023 Union of B.C. Municipalities convention on Monday.

"It's not perfect," said Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, assessing the province's pilot program for decriminalization of possession of some drugs, which began at the start of 2023.

"Any new innovation like this needs adjustments over time, and we've started to look at that."

On the same day that drug possession near playgrounds was banned, provincial officials said further legislation is expected later this year to address some of the additional concerns municipal leaders have raised, including other places public drug use could be restricted and what enforcement might look like.

At the same time, Henry said the government's overall standpoint on decriminalization has not changed.

"The solution is not to go back to arresting people, particularly people who are visibly homeless," she said.

"None of us want drug use around our children, but we need to look at these issues in ways we can support public safety, and public health."

Provincial officials also talked about different mental health support systems and treatment plans that were being expanded across the province, and provided data showing the number of possession offences in B.C. decreased 76 per cent from February to July of this year, compared to the previous four-year average.

Criticism from small towns

The UBCM convention is the annual opportunity for mayors and councillors across B.C. to exchange best practices and debate policy.

But for smaller towns it offers a rare chance to speak directly to the provincial government — and a number of them took the opportunity during the session to raise alarm bells over how decimalization is being perceived.

"The challenges of this in little towns is really big," said Smithers Mayor Gladys Atrill.

Atrill said that while public drug use has increased in smaller communities, most don't have the range of services available in Metro Vancouver and other big cities.

"I'm genuinely supportive, but I don't think we've been supported," she said to applause.

Campbell River chief administrative officer Elle Brovold, whose community banned drug use in public spaces earlier this year, said that in their annual surveys the number of people who said they felt very unsafe downtown increased from seven per cent in 2019 to 36 per cent this year.

"The No. 1 reason people cite is result of public consumption of drugs. Whether or not there's a fair correlation, that's the perception out there," she said.

However, all panellists said they still support the principles of decriminalization, and called on the province to provide more supports.

"I think decriminalization has become the boogeyman in society for everything that's gone wrong," said New Westminster Coun. Nadine Nakagawa.

"We're all on the same page for what's needed ... so that communities can maintain their compassion for these folks."

The UBCM conference is pictured on its first day, B.C, on Monday, September 18, 2023.
The UBCM conference is pictured on its first day, B.C, on Monday, September 18, 2023.

The UBCM convention started Monday and continues all week in Vancouver. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Week-long convention

More than 2,000 people are registered to attend the UBCM convention, which concludes Friday with a speech by Premier David Eby.

Decriminalization is one of the key topics at the convention, as delegates are expected to vote on resolutions asking government to expand prohibitions on possession and use to parks, bus stops, sports fields and other places children gather.

Another resolution facing a vote asks the province to better fund mental-health and addiction treatment, recovery services, overdose prevention and access to safe supply and drug testing.

The proposed UBCM resolution urges the province to introduce legislation this fall to further regulate the "possession and use'' of illicit drugs where children gather.

"[Concerns] have been raised by local governments since the pilot project began in January 2023 on the public use of illicit drugs in child-focused spaces such as parks and playgrounds,'' the resolution says.