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Injunction against B.C.’s new public drug use law sparks mixed reaction

Public Safety Minister Farnworth says injunction temporarily prevents regulation of hard drug use
Corey Ranger, president of the Harm Reduction Nurses Association, welcomes an injunction against the Restricting Public Consumption of Illegal Substances Act. He says it threatens the safety of drug users by pushing them into covert places, where they are more likely to die. But the injunction has also received criticism. (Contributed/ Corey Ranger)

A law promising public safety but facing criticism for stigmatizing drug users won’t come into effect for at least three months following a court ruling that is drawing a wide range of reactions.

B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson Dec. 29 issued an injunction against the Restricting Public Consumption of Illegal Substances Act scheduled to come into effect on Jan. 1 following passage in late fall.

Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said in a statement the province is reviewing the court ruling in assessing its next steps.

“While we respect the decision of the court, we are concerned that this decision temporarily prevents the province from regulating where hard drugs are used, something done in every other province, every day,” Farnworth said.

The bill restricts personal drug possession in public spaces in response to concerns among municipal leaders and others about B.C.’s trial exemption from federal illicit drug laws. The trial — which exempts from criminal penalties possession of up to 2.5 grams of certain illegal drugs for personal until Jan. 30, 2026 — started Jan. 31, 2023.

At the time, schools were deemed off-limits. New measures enacted Sept. 18 expanded the exclusion zone to playgrounds, spray and wading pools, and skate parks. The legislation confirms these exclusion zones and expands them. Similar to regulations for smoking, cannabis and alcohol use, it prohibits drug use at sport fields, beaches, parks, outdoor recreation spaces, public entrances and bus stops.

The Harm Reduction Nurses Association, describing itself as a non-profit Canadian national organization with a “mission to advance harm reduction nursing through practice, education, research, and advocacy” filed a legal challenge in late November to prevent the law from coming into force. HRNA has also asked the BC Supreme Court to declare the law unconstitutional.

Hinkson has since granted HRNA’s request for an injunction until March 31, saying the legislation “poses a sufficiently high probability of irreparable harm” by pushing drug users into places where it will be less safe to consume drugs.

“It is apparent that public consumption and consuming drugs in the company of others is oftentimes the safest, healthiest, and/or only available option for an individual, given a dire lack of supervised consumption services, indoor locations to consume drugs, and housing,” Hinkson said.

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Corey Ranger, HNRN’s president, welcomed the ruling.

“(This) is very important given the gravity and potential harms of this bill coming into force,” he said. “This temporary injunction provides time for the court to assess whether the law that is being proposed violates Charter rights and is outside B.C.’s constitutional jurisdiction.”

He added that “more broadly” the ruling sends the message government has other mechanisms to help drug users and address community concerns than simply doubling down on “punitive approaches.”

The unregulated drug supply is “more volatile and unpredictable than ever” and “putting this type of law into force” would “push people into more covert use,” thereby increasing the risk of death, Ranger added.

Ranger said there is a lot of mis-information and mis-perception about what is allowed and what is actually happening.

“There is no evidence that public drug consumption has gone up during B.C.’s decriminalization pilot,” he said. He also pointed out that areas such schools, playgrounds and splashparks were already off limits prior to the law.

“I would never say or try to tell someone that they are over-reacting or to minimize their concerns, but I would ask folks to consider the fact that we have utilized a law-enforcement, punitive approach to visible poverty, homelessness and drug use for a very long time and the result has been a worsening state (of homelessness and lack of resources).”

Farnworth said his government is doing everything it can to save lives, noting that decriminalization is just one part.

“However, it is not a license to use hard drugs in public places frequented by children and families, or to block the door of our hard-working business owners in downtown areas,” he said.

Reactions from other corners of the debate differ.

Union of British Columbia Municipalities President Trish Mandewo said the ruling “shocked” her, warning that it threatens to undermine legitimacy of the decriminalization trial unfolding in B.C.

“Decriminalization requires an appropriate level of regulation to retain the support of the public and what our members have been hearing loud and clear is that the consumption of illegal drugs in playgrounds, in parks, sportfields, is leading to an unacceptable level of disorder in our communities,” Mandewo said.

Mandewo, whose organization supports the provincial law, paired this message with an appeal for more resources to help people.

“The level of use in public spaces demonstrates much more is needed to provide more complex care and housing and treatment options,” she said.

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Mandewo said society needs to provide more resource if wants a comprehensive response to the opioid crisis. That includes more safe injection sites, she added.

“But that is not going to be our parks or our sports fields,” she said. “So let’s look at proper solutions that we will keep everyone safe. So in this one case, we are looking at safety for one group, but we are forgetting safety for the rest of the population.”

BC United Leader Kevin Falcon used the ruling to criticize both the legislation and decriminalization trial itself.

“If David Eby and the NDP had not rushed through their reckless scheme to decriminalize drugs without guardrails or proper treatment and recovery options in place, we would not be in this chaotic mess that we’re in today,” he said in a statement.

He added that it took government more than seven months of what he called “sustained criticism and pressure” from BC United and others to change course.

“Now their rush to do damage control with poorly drafted legislation after widespread public backlash has left them open to today’s court injunction,” Falcon said.

Farnworth does not buy the criticism.

“Kevin Falcon and the BCUP continue to talk out of both sides of their mouths, saying what they think people want to hear,” he said. “For example, one minute they say they are in favour of overdose prevention sites and the next they say they are opposed to them. We are in a public health emergency and their approach feeds fear and misinformation.


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Wolf Depner

About the Author: Wolf Depner

I joined the national team with Black Press Media in 2023 from the Peninsula News Review, where I had reported on Vancouver Island's Saanich Peninsula since 2019.
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