Vancouver Island municipality to ban drug use in public spaces as decriminalization takes effect

A person is pictured during the first day of decriminalization of people who use hard drugs in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
A person is pictured during the first day of decriminalization of people who use hard drugs in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

A Vancouver Island community is adopting a bylaw banning the consumption of controlled substances on municipal property as B.C. becomes the first province in Canada to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of certain illicit drugs.

Campbell River Coun. Ben Lanyon moved the motion in favour of the bylaw during a Jan. 26 council meeting, five days before decriminalization was to take effect, calling it a proactive approach. It now awaits final adoption, having passed third reading.

"Campbell River and all the other communities on Vancouver Island have been challenged for the last five years or so with public safety issues in their downtown core ... so we are trying to predict the future and respond appropriately," Lanyon said on CBC's All Points West on Wednesday.

He said while there is no evidence that the decriminalization three-year pilot project would lead to more drug use in public spaces, the city's new bylaw would give law enforcement the tools it needs to protect residents.

"They'd have the authority to request that the person using in that sensitive public area stop. And if there was any kind of refusal, then they would have the same abilities as they would if this was alcohol," he said.

"If we don't have a bylaw like this, a person can just openly use drugs in a park where there are kids."

Legal advocate says bylaw 'quite backward'

Caitlin Shane, a staff lawyer with Pivot Legal Society — a legal advocacy organization that represents and defends the interests of marginalized communities in B.C. — says the bylaw is "disappointing but not surprising."

"At a time when every level of government is vowing to treat substance use as a public health issue rather than a criminal justice issue, this bylaw is really quite backward."

The bylaw banning the consumption of drugs like opioids, cocaine, MDMA and methamphetamine in city facilities and parks would carry a penalty of $200.

"What we absolutely do know is that criminalization and the threat of administrative penalties like fines are exactly what drives drug use underground and deters people from accessing overdose prevention sites," Shane told CBC News.

"This is exactly the type of stigma that we are trying to chip away at with the decriminalization policy."


She said the province has the authority to stop its enactment as it affects health care.

In a statement, the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions said while decriminalization does not affect the ability of local governments to pass bylaws, it recommends that it be done in consultation with the local medical health officer.

"The Government of B.C. is mindful that aggressive enforcement activities, such as ticketing, may drive people to use drugs alone where risk of death is elevated."

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Island Health says the City of Campbell River and its council did not inform or consult with its medical health officer (MHO) before the bylaw was passed.

"Island Health's north island MHO sent email correspondence to mayor and council on Jan. 25, the day before the bylaw was voted on.  At their Jan. 26 public meeting, mayor and council voted against receiving the letter as formal correspondence," it said in a statement to CBC.