Premier David Eby said new legislation restricting personal drug possession in public spaces tries to strike a balance between treating individuals dealing with addiction with compassion without criminalizing them, while ensuring public safety.
“Decriminalization is about giving people an opportunity to get into care, they are not going to fear arrest for struggling with addiction, that they can talk with family and friends and to reassure communities that this approach doesn’t mean that you have to give up your park, doesn’t mean that you have to avoid the bus stop, doesn’t mean that you have to give up your business in the downtown core,” Eby said. “We can find this balance and we will.”
But Eby also conceded failings eight months into B.C.’s decriminalization trial and acknowledged gaps in the number of available support sites for individuals dealing with addiction, while promising to work with communities to expand available resources.
He made these comments during a news conference, where Public Safety Minister and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth joined him in describing Restricting Public Consumption of Illegal Substances Act tabled earlier Thursday morning.
Farnworth tabled the legislation in response to concerns among municipality leaders and others around the province’s trial to be exempt from illicit drug laws in the country.
The trial — which exempts possession of up to 2.5 grams of certain illegal drugs for personal use from Jan. 31, 2023 to Jan. 30, 2026 from criminal penalties — started in late January. At the time, schools were deemed off-limits to this pilot.
New measures in effect since Sept. 18 expanded the exclusion zone to playgrounds, spray and wading pools, as well as skate parks. The legislation confirms these exclusion zones and expands them. Similar to regulations for smoking, cannabis and alcohol use, the legislation prohibits drug use at sport fields, beaches, parks, outdoor recreation spaces, public entrances and bus stops.
“Decriminalization was never about being able to use hard drugs wherever you wanted,” Eby said.
Farnworth said the act draws on extensive consultation with various actors and lived experience in establishing province-wide standards that would avoid what he called a “patch-work” of different rules around the province.
Eby added that the legislation allows municipalities to establish tougher rules subject to consultations with the regional health board and the medical health officer.
Farnworth said police will use what he called a “progressive framework” to enforce the legislation with the emphasis on compliance rather than enforcement. Police have made it clear that they do not want to use criminal law to deal with individuals dealing with addiction, Farnworth said, noting that police will receive briefings about the changes.
If police officers have reasonable grounds to believe that individuals are consuming illegal substances in the newly excluded areas, police officers “may direct” those individuals to cease consumption or leave the area for another appropriate areas, such as overdose prevention or supervised consumption sites.
Police may also immediately seize, remove and destroy any illegal substances found on those who do not comply with such orders.
“There would be potential to go further than that, depending on how the situation evolves,” Farnworth said. “But the key focus is not a criminal offence. It’s about getting people to move on, educating them and getting them to the appropriate sources (of help). “
But questions persist about B.C.’s ability to provide them that necessary help in sufficient quantity.
“We are willing to work with local leadership to make sure there are safe places with services attached that people can be directed to,” Eby said. “We have had a challenge from… some communities that are not interested in having overdose reduction sites in their town, in their city. I hope that with this legislation, they recognize how these pieces are going to work together to be able to support people, get them into the right place and connect them into the system to get the care that they need.”
He added that government’s “over-arching goal” is to expand treatment opportunities across the province.
More broadly, Eby faced several questions about what the new legislation meant for the overall future of the decriminalization trial.
He said that it does “not at all” represent a reversal of the original decriminalization policy, adding later that “without a doubt, the old system wasn’t working and without a doubt, allowing people to use hard drugs wherever they like is not what British Columbians want either.”