With many of the province’s mayors claiming they’re now faced with increased regulatory and enforcement challenges following the decriminalization of possession of small amounts of illicit drugs, B.C.'s mental health minister is providing few details on promised legislative amendments to address the problem.
Speaking at a Metro Vancouver mayor’s committee meeting in Burnaby Wednesday, Jennifer Whiteside said that with a “real or perceived” increase in drug use in parks and at playgrounds, the provincial government has committed to legislation that will make it clearer that drug use is not permitted around areas frequented by children.
At issue is the decriminalization of possession of up to 2.5 grams of fentanyl, heroin, crack, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA on Jan. 31 — part of a pilot program with the federal government.
“The intention of the policy is setting up conditions to connect people with those who care,” as opposed to putting them in jail, said Whiteside, adding the policy is supported by local police departments.
However, as a result of the policy, municipalities have claimed an uptick in open drug use; a matter acknowledged by Whiteside: “I do think in some cases what we have seen is individuals, who may have been using in very public places but in hidden ways, starting to come out now because there is less fear associated with their ability to use drugs.”
Adding to the problem, according to some mayors, is how the provincial policy has trumped local bylaws — as was the case in Port Coquitlam, which amended its bylaws to specifically prohibit drug use in parks, this spring.
And so, mayors are collectively calling for clarity from the province: “We need a system that is applicable across all municipalities,” District of North Vancouver Mayor Mike Little told Whiteside.
“The challenge is that for municipalities, we have the wrong tools. Sending in a bylaw officer to someone experiencing a health crisis is not appropriate,” said Little.
Port Coquitlam Mayor Brad West said following decriminalization, police have shifted their focus elsewhere (an intended consequence of the policy, according to Whiteside). But this has left the city’s bylaw officers to confront drug users who are subject to complaints from the public.
Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart echoed concerns about bylaw officers enforcing drug use policies.
“We don’t call bylaw on broken legs either, so leave our staff out of it; it’s got to be medical,” said Stewart.
While it remains unclear exactly what the province will do about the legalities of drug use in certain public places across the province, the discussion between Whiteside and the mayors also turned to a broader one about addressing growing mental health- and addiction-related problems.
Delta Mayor George Harvie asked Whiteside if she was considering mandatory recovery services for the mentally ill.
Whiteside indicated involuntary care was not yet an option being explored; under the Mental Health Act, she said, “there are a number of voluntary tools we have not exhausted.”
Harvie’s question was preceded by an anecdotal observation he made this weekend, when he said he observed (from his vehicle) a person laying on the sidewalk with no shoes and being ignored by bystanders.
“If it was an injured animal, we would have someone there right away. Now, society is just ignoring it,” said Harvie, suggesting someone in such a “sad state” likely cannot make their own decision to enter a care facility.
West said preventative measures are needed to curb the opioid death rate, which was declared a public health emergency in April 2016, a year when 996 people died from what the BC Coroners Service now coins as “unregulated drugs.”
In 2018, 1,561 people died from drugs and fewer died in 2019. Whiteside said the province was making up ground on the file until the COVID-19 pandemic hit and access to health care became a problem. Plus, said Whiteside, a significant factor is the increased toxicity of the drugs.
In 2022, a record 2,384 people died in B.C. — a rate of 44.8 people per 100,000. By comparison, the rate is about 32 people per 100,000 in the United States.
Whiteside said the ministry’s goal is to make mental health part of the primary health-care system and spoke of a “fragmented collection of resources” that currently awaits anyone entering into care for drug addiction and or mental illness.
“We need strong pathways to the whole continuum of care and that is the system we are building,” said Whiteside.
Part of the solution, including preventative measures, said Whiteside in response to West, is a new model for youth facing mental illness. On Tuesday, Whiteside announced a $3-million investment for 30 YMCA-run programs for teens to cope with stress and anxiety. Over the next three years, the Y Mind and Mind Medicine program is expected to help 1,800 teens.