Nanaimo council discusses possible public drug use bylaw

Portrait of a woman with long brown hair wearing a white sweater against a blue wall with graffiti.
Heather McDonald, a peer worker with the Nightkeepers outreach team says that she hasn't seen an increase in public drug use following decriminalization. Photo: Mick Sweetman / CHLY 101.7FM
Mick Sweetman - CHLY - NanaimoBC | 13-09-2023
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On Monday, a staff report on a possible bylaw that would regulate public drug use was presented to Nanaimo city council.

The report stated the medical Health officer for central Vancouver Island said banning public drug use would force people to conceal their substance use and use alone, increasing the risk of overdose.

The report also said that the province is looking to introduce legislation around public consumption of drugs this fall after simple possession was decriminalized in January for a period of three years.

Coun. Ian Thorpe said that if the province doesn’t bring in provincial legislation he will propose Nanaimo adopt a bylaw.

“Members of our taxpaying public are being adversely affected by having to deal with public drug use in public spaces,” he said. “Quite frankly, I'm hearing a lot of people say they're not prepared to tolerate it, they want some action.”

Heather McDonald, a peer outreach worker with Nightkeepers, said that she’s not seeing an increase in public drug use following decriminalization.

“Even though decriminalization is beginning to occur, it's not increasing the amount of public drug use,” she said. “It's not making things more comfortable for drug users, the amounts are still so low, that there's still a high risk of criminalization.”

The report noted that two bylaws on public drug use in Campbell River early this year that had the power to issue $200 tickets were challenged by the Pivot Legal Society before being rescinded by council.

The City of Campbell River later amended its public nuisance bylaw to restrict drug use within 15 metres of most spaces where children and families gather, but did not include a ticketing provision.

Caitlin Shane, a lawyer with the Pivot Legal Society, said that any public health bylaw needs approval from the province.

“The law is quite clear that any council that is seeking to pass a public health bylaw requires both consultation with medical health officers, as well as the approval of the provincial health minister or mental health and addictions minister,” she said, noting that requirement was absent from the staff report to city council.

“When communities are moving forward with these bylaws that absolutely impact public health, they're not obtaining the proper legal basis to do so,” Shane said. “In that sense alone they're, in my view, illegal.”

Shane said that she’s concerned that municipalities are looking to pass bylaws regulating public drug use instead of what they can do to facilitate the safe use of drugs in controlled environments.

“Historically, when people who use drugs have attempted to establish overdose prevention sites, supervised consumption sites, indoor spaces to meet, they have been fought against tooth-and-nail by local governments,” she said.

In 2020, Nanaimo city council repealed a zoning bylaw for drug addiction treatment facilities, but specifically excluded supervised consumption sites from being able to operate in any building zoned for medical offices. This means that any permanent supervised consumption site in the city would need city council approval for its location.

Currently one Overdose Prevention Site in the city operates seven days a week at 250 Albert Street from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. under the authority of the provincial health emergency which was declared in 2016. It has eight inhalation and three injection booths.

Nanaimo Mayor Lenoard Krog said that a bylaw would be unenforceable without the ability to ticket people who break it.

“I've quoted before Anatole France, the great French philosopher, socialist and Nobel Prize winner for literature, that ‘the law in its majestic equality forbids the rich as well as the poor, to beg in the streets, to sleep under bridges and to steal bread.’ I get that,” Krog said. “There's no sense trying to fine somebody who's starving and living in the streets already.”

Coun. Hilary Eastmure said that the city should be more concerned about the number of people in Nanaimo who have died from toxic drugs this year.

“In the first seven months of 2023, we've had 76 deaths from toxic drugs and that's going to eclipse our 77 deaths in all of 2022,” she said. “So we're really in a crisis on this and the people who are hurting the most from this are the people who are dying from the toxic drugs.”

Eastmure said she would like to see the province provide more support for housing, overdose prevention sites and access to safe supply in the city.

Coun. Janice Perino said that she was concerned about a recent report of a dog allegedly finding a package of fentanyl in a public park.

“Like my dog, they sniff every single bush that there is, and their dog happened to sniff something that they believe [was] fentanyl, and they had to spend hundreds of dollars to try to save the dog. They still don't know whether or not he's going to survive.”

Perino said that she would support a bylaw on public drug use if the province doesn’t take action.

According to McDonald the drug users she works with already make an effort to avoid areas where children may be present such as playgrounds.

“People, even in a state of crisis, are still able to be mindful of avoiding places like where children are, so that they can keep a level of respect,” she said.

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