B.C.’s minister of mental health and addictions says there’s no evidence suggesting decriminalization has led to an increase in the consumption of illicit drugs in public spaces.
Jennifer Whiteside held a series of meetings with politicians, harm-reduction organizations and local stakeholders in Nelson on Thursday to address community concerns about public drug use.
At one of those meetings, Whiteside conceded the provincial government should have made more clear that possession did not give people permission to use in public. But she also said in a statement Saturday there was no data to prove public use of illicit drugs is on the rise post-decriminalization.
“However, we know that every community is experiencing the toxic drug crisis differently and I was glad to speak with people in Nelson about their experiences. We want to ensure everyone feels safe and welcomed in their community. That is why the province is actively undertaking engagement and policy work to develop legislation for our fall legislative session to regulate public use of illicit drugs.”
Decriminalization, she said in an interview with the Nelson Star, was about removing the stigma of drug use and changing substance users’ relations with law enforcement.
“I do want to be clear that the objective of urging the decriminalization project was not to create conditions where we saw a vast expansion of open drug use. That was just not our objective.”
The three-year federal exemption allowing for possession of up to 2.5 grams of illicit drugs including opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA for adults ages 18 and older went into effect Jan. 31. But the exemption does not say anything about where people can and can’t use drugs. It only bans possession from schools, child care facilities and airports.
Concerns have prompted some B.C. municipalities to introduce bylaws banning the public use of illicit drugs, which Nelson Mayor Janice Morrison has said the city will follow suit on. Premier David Eby has also promised legislation will be introduced in the fall meant to help cities control drug use in parks.
It’s not clear what such bans will mean for the drug crisis, which has already killed 1,018 in B.C. through May and over 12,000 since 2016. Three people also recently died in Nelson from drug poisonings over just seven days in June.
Statistics released by the BC Coroners Service in June show 81 per cent of unregulated drug deaths occur inside, while just 17 per cent occurred outside in vehicles, sidewalks, streets and parks.
Whiteside agreed consideration needed to be made for the possibility that bans on public drug use might lead to further deaths indoors.
“We’re in a public health emergency, and we have to be mindful of that context with respect to any solutions that are derived in order to address concerns that are coming forward around public use of drugs.”
Whiteside is the second minister to visit Nelson since public backlash forced Interior Health to postpone plans in May for a safe inhalation site to open downtown.
Nelson already has an overdose prevention site that operates at two locations, but no services for supervised inhalation. Smoking, and not injection, is the most common mode of consumption by people who are killed by toxic drugs in B.C.
Deputy Premier Mike Farnworth, who is also Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General, came to the city in May and criticized the health authority for a lack of public consultation.
In her conversations with community members Thursday, Whiteside took a conciliatory tone.
She didn’t say whether or not Interior Health would move forward with its plans for a site at the Nelson Friendship Outreach Clubhouse, which has been criticized for a lack of security and as a centre for nearby crime and vandalism.
But she also said community concerns had been heard.
“What I have encouraged Interior Health to do is to really work with the community to identify an appropriate site for services that are, I think everybody agrees, very much needed in the community. But it’s also equally clear that there needs to be a community process around identifying appropriate places for such services.”
There are a lack of overdose prevention sites in the Kootenays. Only two, in Cranbrook and Nelson, exist in the region, and people attending the meeting told Whiteside they believe the concentration of services in Nelson has led to more people with complex needs in the city.
Whiteside later told the Nelson Star the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on provincial health care has hampered the rollout of rural harm reduction services. She did not commit to placing safe consumption sites in every B.C. municipality, but agreed it should be considered.
“Our health care system is still really recovering from its experience during the pandemic. … That ground that we are now trying to recapture in terms of the mental health and addictions crisis we’ve really lost.”