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Health and safety remains focus with decriminalization in Grand Forks

Still early, but public drug use remains a social issue: RCMP
Effective as of May 7, the use of illicit drugs in public spaces is no longer legal in B.C., but police will still be treating it as a health and social issue, says the Grand Forks RCMP commander. Photo: Black Press file.

As the province moves to amend decriminalization, the emphasis for policing and bylaw is still going to be on health and safety in the Grand Forks and the Boundary Region.

Ottawa approved B.C.’s request to make use of illicit drugs in all public places illegal on May 7. This includes parks, hospitals and on transit vehicles. The province made the request on April 26 after months of pressure from the public, police agencies and political opposition.

While this means public drug use is no longer legal, Grand Forks RCMP detachment commander Sgt. Darryl Peppler said officers will still protect public safety for all people.

“Substance use is not to be looked at solely as a criminal matter, rather the harm it causes is very much a health and social issue,” he said. “The amendments made to the exemption were in part due to concerns about widespread use of controlled substances in public spaces. However, police officers will continue to achieve a balance between public safety and public health.”

Ya’ara Saks, Federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions announced the federal government’s approval during a scrum with reporters in Ottawa.

“We have said ‘yes’ and it’s effective immediately,” Saks said. “This is a health crisis, not a criminal one. That being said, communities need to be safe. People need to have confidence that in their own communities, they can move about freely and feel comfortable and engaged.”

Following federal approval, B.C. launched a three-year pilot project Jan. 31, 2023 that exempted people from facing arrest or criminal charges if they were in possession of up to 2.5 grams of hard drugs, including heroin, cocaine, crack, crystal meth, MDMA and fentanyl. Commonly referred to a decriminalization, or “decrim,” it came after advocates had been lobbying for years to decriminalize personal possession of drugs in efforts to reduce stigma and those using alone in the face of the toxic drug crisis.

While this amendment changes the legality of drug possession in B.C., it doesn’t re-criminalize possession in private residences, overdose prevention sites, drug-checking locations or other places where individuals are legally sheltering. However, it does give police power to enforce public drug use restrictions, including the power to arrest individuals when deemed necessary.

In comments on Tuesday, B.C.’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jennifer Whiteside said residents can expect to see less drug use in public.

“We are certainly…anticipating that we will see, as British Columbians had asked for, a reduction in the people experiencing and seeing and witnessing and being proximate to public drug use,” Whiteside said. “That is certainly what I expect in the coming months as we continue to work on the health care objectives that we have.”

She added B.C. has the highest number of overdose prevention sites per capita and the province is making more investments in supportive housing, as there is a link between unstable housing and substance use.

New guidelines for how police will handle drug use in public spaces are still being finalized, said Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth, but stressed decriminalization was never about using drugs in public.

About the Author: Karen McKinley

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