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Federal addictions minister says B.C. public decriminalization reversal under review

OTTAWA — It is too early to draw conclusions about drug decriminalization, the federal addictions and mental health minister suggested Monday, after British Columbia asked Ottawa to scale back its pilot project to help curb concerns over public drug
Federal Addictions Minister Ya'ara Saks rises during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, April 29, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA — It is too early to draw conclusions about drug decriminalization, the federal addictions and mental health minister suggested Monday, after British Columbia asked Ottawa to scale back its pilot project to help curb concerns over public drug use.

In her first public remarks since B.C. made its request, Ya'ara Saks noted that the province is only a year into its three-year pilot project, which began in January 2023.

To make it happen, Health Canada issued an exemption to federal drug laws decriminalizing possession of small amounts of certain illegal drugs, including heroin, fentanyl, cocaine and methamphetamine.

"We're still evaluating the data," the minister said.

But on Friday, B.C. Premier David Eby asked Health Canada to amend that exemption order to recriminalize the use of those drugs in public spaces such as hospitals, transit and parks. 

While adults would still be allowed to use such drugs in private, they could be arrested for using them in public. 

The request followed months of backlash from residents, health-care workers, police and conservative politicians about the project's effect on public safety. 

Saks said she met with her provincial counterpart on Friday and the province's amendment request is under review.

"The overdose crisis, as I've said before and I say again, is a health crisis issue. It is not a criminal one," Saks told reporters. 

B.C. was the first jurisdiction in Canada to seek the decriminalization of small amounts of hard drugs.

The province declared drug-related overdose deaths to be a public-health emergency in 2016, and the crisis worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Eby told reporters Monday that other jurisdictions can learn from its experience with decriminalization to date. 

He said there must be resources in place to address public drug use.

"There are important lessons to be learned on where we are to date, that don't need to be repeated," he said. 

"Addressing the public's concern around public use is critical to having their understanding about taking a health approach to addiction. Balancing those two things is core, and I hope other jurisdictions take that lesson and don't repeat our mistakes." 

Toronto has also requested an exemption from Health Canada. 

Toronto Public Health said in a statement that it is monitoring B.C's experience. It added that in its proposed model, public drug use would remain illegal. 

Ontario Premier Doug Ford repeated his call Monday for Toronto to drop that application.

Ford said he's spoken to Eby about how things have gone in B.C., and said "it's turned into a nightmare." 

Saks said Toronto's request is also under review, and each request for decriminalization will be treated individually.

"We work with jurisdictions on a case-by-case basis, making sure we have a full suite of tools available to help vulnerable populations. That includes prevention, that includes harm reduction, that includes treatment and it includes a full set of health considerations," she said. 

"It’s not an apples-to-apples situation and we continue to partner and work with jurisdictions."

Conservative House leader Andrew Scheer said Monday that worse than the fact Saks did not immediately grant B.C's request was her failure to rule out expanding decriminalization further.

The Conservatives lost an attempt Monday to hold an emergency debate on the drug crisis, but Scheer called on the government to call for one itself.

More than 40,000 people have died of opioid-related causes countrywide since 2016, when the Public Health Agency of Canada began collecting such data. 

The agency says 22 people die every day from toxic drug deaths, and fentanyl is the leading cause. Most of the deaths are in B.C., Ontario and Alberta.

Health officials and advocates for drug users warn the situation is only worsening, given an increasingly toxic supply of drugs. 

During question period on Monday, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre pressed the Liberal government on B.C.'s about-face, at one point asking "what (the) hell are they thinking." 

Since becoming leader, Poilievre has taken aim at B.C.'s response to the overdose crisis. He has repeatedly called decriminalization in cities like Vancouver a "dangerous experiment."

Petra Schulz, a co-founder of Moms Stop the Harm, which advocates for harm reduction strategies like decriminalization, said in an interview Monday that B.C's decision was "deeply upsetting" and that it's unfair for public drug use to be blamed on the policy when the province has a severe lack of available housing. 

"The decriminalization pilot is being made a scapegoat," she said, pointing out that cities like Ottawa and Edmonton are also dealing with public drug use. 

"If anybody thinks substance use will go away if you recriminalize it, that is not the case."

"If you don't like public substance use, you have to give people housing, you have to give them safe places to use."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 29, 2024.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press