B.C. health officer urges patience on drug crisis; delegates to vote on resolutions

VANCOUVER — Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry is urging patience from British Columbia's municipal leaders on drug decriminalization, saying the problem isn't something they can arrest their way out of.

Henry told politicians at the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention that the pilot program is "not perfect," but provincial statistics show the largest group of drug users who have died from overdoses are men between ages 30 and 59.

She says many of them died because of the stigmatization of drug use as a criminal activity, leading them to consume and die alone.

Henry says decriminalization is meant to "remove that label" from drug users to promote safer use and to save lives.

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 resolution says there's currently inadequate money to ensure the safety of people who use illicit drugs.

Both resolutions will go to a vote on Wednesday, with the funding proposal already endorsed by the group's resolutions committee, which hasn't taken a position on expanding prohibition zones.

The moves come after the federal government approved changes of a pilot project launched in B.C. earlier this year that decriminalizes possession of small amounts of illicit drugs.

The changes that came into force Monday prohibit possession within 15 metres of a park or child-focused space.

Henry says the federal amendments show that the province, which asked the federal government for the changes, is responding to local complaints.

"None of us wants drug use around our children," Henry says. "But we need to look at these issues in ways that we can support public safety, we can support police and we can also support people who are more vulnerable."

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.

Intoxication in all public places remains illegal.

More than 2,000 people are registered to attend the annual gathering of elected municipal leaders that concludes Friday with a speech by Premier David Eby.

UBCM president Jen Ford says the convention comes as communities tackle wildfires, housing woes, mental health and addictions, with some facing multiple emergencies.

She says municipal leaders are looking to the province to ease bureaucracy to access funds to make their communities safer from wildfires.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 18, 2023.

The Canadian Press