Coalition of drug user groups wants court to quash B.C. drug 'recriminalization'

VANCOUVER — When the federal government allowed British Columbia to walk back its experiment with drug decriminalization, the move wasn't surprising to Brittany Maple, executive director of the Matsqui-Abbotsford Impact Society.

"It's disheartening," Maple said. "We are effectively criminalizing people for existing in public spaces when they have nowhere else safe to exist."

Now, Maple's society has teamed up with a coalition of drug user advocacy groups to take the federal government to court, claiming the decision to recriminalize public drug possession in B.C. puts users at increased risk of death.

The group of 13 non-profits, which includes the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users and the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society, alleges in an application filed in Federal Court that the government recriminalized public drug possession in B.C. "with minimal justification or evidence."

In an interview Wednesday, Maple said the toxic drug crisis coupled with the province's housing crisis leaves people who use drugs vulnerable to arrest or death.

"We've spent many, many years telling people 'do not use alone,'" she said. "We're pulling people out of the shadows to try and keep people safe in an unprecedented crisis of toxic drug poisoning (and) death and this serves to recriminalize those people and push them further into the shadows and it will increase the death toll."

The groups claim in court that decriminalization was part of B.C.'s "action plan" on the toxic drug crisis that required an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

The provincial government later sought an "exemption amendment" to again prohibit public drug possession, which was granted by the federal minister of mental health and addictions in early May.

The court application says the decision was made in "bad faith, for reasons of political expedience," and failed to consider the Charter-protected rights of drug users.

"We know that consultation with affected communities is a very important step in making these amendments and these exemptions and to our knowledge that didn't happen," Maple said. "The point of a judicial review is to seek those answers, and if the appropriate process wasn't followed we are seeking for the exemption amendment to be quashed."

The non-profit groups claim the minister's decision was based on vague "public safety concerns," and the effect was to recriminalize the possession of certain illegal drugs in all places other than a private residence.

Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Ya'ara Saks office said in a statement that the province asked for the amendments to its drug decriminalization pilot project.

"After careful review and consideration, Minister Saks granted B.C.’s request to reduce the scope of public places where possession of controlled substances is permitted," the statement said.

"Everyone deserves to feel safe in their communities. Law enforcement also needed to have additional tools to address issues of public safety while continuing to take a compassionate and public health approach to addressing substance use harms." the statement said.

Exemptions continue to apply in private residences, health care clinics, places where people are sheltering and overdose prevention and drug checking sites, Saks statement said.

The federal government has not responded to the application in Federal Court, which was filed in Vancouver earlier this month.

In filing the judicial review, the groups want the court to quash the minister's decision rather than order it sent back for reconsideration, claiming "no useful purpose would be served" by sending it back because the minister has a "closed mind"

"We know that no one strategy is going to solve the toxic drug poisoning crisis," Maple said. "We're advocating for a comprehensive system of care, a comprehensive set of strategies, and decriminalization is one piece of that."

The groups are also asking the court to hear the application on an "expedited basis."

"The underlying circumstances are urgent," the application says. "Seven British Columbians are dying each day from the toxic, unregulated drug supply."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 19, 2024.

Darryl Greer, The Canadian Press