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Rob Shaw: Fence-sitting thrusts BC NDP into no-win scenario as overdose deaths climb

Government’s messaging over public drug-use legislation has completely reversed as it attempts to co-opt language of Opposition, writes Rob Shaw
BC NDP finds itself caught in a quagmire of its own making, writes Rob Shaw.

It wasn’t even a year ago that Opposition politicians stood in B.C.’s legislature with a simple question: Why is it illegal to drink in a park, but people can use hard drugs there without consequences?

“While simple activities like having a beer at your local public park or using a plastic straw are tightly regulated, the premier’s policy allows completely uncontrolled consumption of lethal drugs like crystal meth, crack cocaine and fentanyl,” BC United Leader Kevin Falcon said April 19.

“Neighbourhoods, as a result, are being plagued by discarded drugs and drug paraphernalia, forcing families to worry about their children stumbling upon needles in parks, beaches and playgrounds.”

The framing formed the basis of several legislative question periods by BC United MLAs, as they responded to concerns from mayors across the province that bylaw officers and police were unable to clear public spaces of drug users after the BC NDP’s implemented decriminalization at the start of last year.

“What the public doesn’t understand is why having a beer in a public park is strictly regulated and there are no restrictions or bans on using drugs like crystal meth, crack cocaine and fentanyl,” BC United MLA Lorne Doerkson said on May 2.

“Frankly, it’s absurd that we’re even having this debate.”

New Democrats, though, thought the questions were absurd, and accused their critics of fear-mongering.

“That characterization, I would suggest, is just simply wrong — quite wrong, in fact,” Mental Health and Addictions Minister Jennifer Whiteside said to Falcon in April.

Nine months later, the NDP’s messaging has been completely reversed, as it attempts to co-opt the language of the Opposition and redirect it against the BC Supreme Court for blocking a law to restrict public drug use.

“The court’s decision is very troubling to me,” Premier David Eby said Tuesday.

“It’s profoundly concerning that we can regulate alcohol use, we can regulate tobacco use, but apparently the court has told us that we cannot regulate hard drug use in our province. We are studying the decision.”

The government is “studying the decision” of BC Supreme Court Justice Christopher Hinkson, said Eby.

The injunction bars government from implementing the public drug use legislation until at least March 31, as a larger debate over constitutionality is decided.

“Trying to find a path forward where we can ensure people struggling with addiction feel free to come forward to a health care professional to engage with the system without getting arrested is critical, but at the same time so is ensuring safe communities, making sure people know they don’t have to give up their parks, business doorways and bus stops in exchange for ensuring people are treated with compassion and understanding when they are facing addiction,” said Eby.

The NDP is attempting to play both sides of the decriminalization issue: On the one hand removing the threat of arrest and seizure for people who publicly possess illicit drugs, while on the other passing legislation that authorizes the arrest and seizure of those same people if they actually use those drugs publicly.

The fence-sitting is doing nothing to actually curb overdose deaths, which continued at a record pace in 2023.

Worse, it has put the NDP in a no-win scenario — caught between advocates who feel the government is betraying the principles of decriminalization by re-stigmatizing users, and political opponents who say the government has gone too far in catering to the rights of drug users over the public at parks, beaches, playgrounds, bus stops and other spaces.

Neither side can even agree what is happening in the real world.

A growing number of mayors (including NDP-allied municipal politicians) are backing the BC United position to crack down on open drug use, due to increased crime and disorder on streets and near overdose prevention sites.

Meanwhile, watchdogs like the coroner, alongside health and drug policy experts, are calling on the NDP to go further by regulating more safe supply and access to drugs like meth and heroin.

New Democrats have no one to blame but themselves for the position they are now in.

They crafted a decriminalization regime last January without proper foresight. They got hammered for problems within two months, tried and failed to demonize their critics within four months, backpedalled into restrictive legislation within nine months, and now at the 12-month mark are fighting the courts using the same language they once decried.

All while overdose deaths continue to rise.

It’s the worst of both worlds — not only for the NDP government, but for the public and, most importantly, those who continue to die from toxic drugs.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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