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Downtown Courtenay businesses skeptical of decriminalization pilot

Those working in proximity to drug use issue, dealing with its effects, uncertain if it’s the answer
A new BC Government pilot project to decriminalize small amounts of illicit drugs has been met with mixed reviews by downtown Courtenay businesses. ADOBE STOCK IMAGE

Health Canada granted B.C. a three-year exemption, starting Jan. 31, to remove criminal penalties for people who possess a small amount of certain illicit substances for personal use. Users 18 and older can carry a combined 2.5 grams of opioids such as heroin and fentanyl, as well as cocaine, ecstasy and methamphetamine.

The idea is to reduce the stigma, and encourage drug users to access health services.

A businessman in downtown Courtenay questions the effectiveness of the pilot project. He was speaking to a drug user who said he would seek rehab if he was given $20 a day, a roof over his head and three square meals a day.

“And he says, ‘Wouldn’t that be cheaper than it would be to give them drugs and everything they want?’” the business owner said. “Which is what they’re doing…Makes sense, it’s cheaper.”

The user pointed out that government has not sought out suggestions from him or other people on the street.

“Where do you start?” said the businessman, who has seen young people shooting up in the downtown core. “I don’t know where to send my kid if he’s f***ed up. The public is ignorant of it, they don’t know where to go (to dry out).

“As far as I’m concerned it’s a health issue that government refuses to deal with, because they don’t have the money or resources. They think the answer is by giving them free drugs. To me, that’s wrong.”

Lyndsey Bell, co-owner of Bigfoot Donuts on 5th Street, concurs that public health and safety is becoming a greater concern.

“I can attest to the challenges facing downtown businesses with regard to drug use,” said Bell, noting an outrageous amount of issues in recent months. She foresees a “collective frustration” erupting in the near future between businesses and Courtenay council. “Changes need to happen now.”

The mandate of the Downtown Courtenay Business Improvement Association is to ensure the downtown core is a vibrant place to do business. However, recent and growing complex issues are making this mandate difficult to achieve.

“Our association’s goalposts are changing as we prioritize the safety and security of our members, in addition to our marketing, beautification and economic development work,” the association said in a statement. “We seek support from city council to protect small businesses so they can continue to be a thriving part of the heart of Courtenay. We also call on higher levels of government to carry out effective health and housing initiatives for the vulnerable population in our province.”

In Campbell River, council passed a bylaw that makes it illegal to consume drugs in public. Fines can reach $200. The Pivot Legal Society of Vancouver has filed a petition to the Supreme Court of B.C., saying the bylaw is out of the City of Campbell River’s jurisdiction.

Regardless, Bell said if the City of Courtenay has the ability to enact a similar bylaw, she would expect to see it in place.

While the 2.5-gram threshold may not go far enough, Courtenay Coun. Evan Jolicoeur hopes the pilot project leads to conversations around the next steps in terms of treatment options, safe supply, and more funding and resources.

“This pilot project will attempt to create a framework for a pan-Canadian approach and a model for expansion in BC.,” said Jolicoeur, an RN, and a mental health and addictions clinician.

READ: Island city’s bylaw banning public drug consumption challenged in court

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