A group of Vancouver-area drug users and community members say the provincial government’s decision to limit where illicit substances can be consumed is stigmatizing and endangering their lives.
B.C. announced new restrictions on its three-year decriminalization pilot project last month.
While people who use drugs can still carry up to 2.5 cumulative grams of opioids on them, they can no longer do so within 15 metres of any play structure in a playground, spray or wading pool, nor skate park. That’s in addition to the limitations that came with the start of decriminalization on Jan. 31, which prohibit illegal drugs for youth under 18, on school grounds, at licensed child-care facilities and at airports.
The province also said last month that it will be introducing further legislation soon to further regulate public drug use.
Vince Tao, a community organizer with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), said these new moves came without any consultation with people who use drugs or, apparently, any evidence. In July, Mental Health and Addictions Minister Jennifer Whiteside said they had seen nothing to suggest decriminalization has led to an increase in the consumption of illicit drugs in public spaces.
Why then, the VANDU members asked at a gathering on Wednesday (Oct. 4), is the province limiting where they can consume, in the name of public safety.
Tao said the result of policies and language that treat drug users as a risk to children and families is stigmatization and increased deaths – the very things the provincial government said it was tackling with decriminalization.
“It’s only been eight months and the BC NDP is already backtracking on its own commitment to the safety of drug users and the safety of our communities here.”
VANDU board member Martin Steward said increased restrictions on outdoor drug consumption would be one thing if there were enough overdose prevention sites and safe indoor spaces for people, but that isn’t the case. In fact, Tao added, they’ve been watching safe consumption sites closing across the country.
He said the restrictions are especially frustrating for drug users when they see the consumption of other substances, such as alcohol, being normalized for some people.
“There is a deep hypocrisy in these public consumption laws. We see our very own mayor, Ken Sim, chugging a beer at the front of a festival. Meanwhile, he’s banning the use of illicit drugs just for our community who’s already over-policed, stigmatized and profiled for being poor, for looking poor.”
Sim is one of a number of municipal leaders who, along with provincial opposition party BC United, have been pushing for limitations on decriminalization since it was implemented. He and the mayors of Victoria and Courtenay issued statements in favour of the new restrictions, after they were announced. Leaders in Campbell River and North Cowichan have pushed for local bylaws banning public consumption altogether. And BC United Leader Kevin Falcon has said he would end decriminalization if elected.
On Wednesday, VANDU publicly released its Users’ Code, showing the 16 protocols their members follow to ensure the safety of their neighbourhood.
Among them is a rule to call out when there are kids nearby as a signal for everyone to put their drugs away, for instance. People are also told to keep sidewalks clear for elders and people with disabilities, be discrete when consuming drugs and always carry Narcan. They agree not to turn someone onto drugs for the first time, not to steal from neighbours and to alert people about a toxic supply.
“The government refuses to accept that drug users are family too,” Lorna Bird, VANDU’s longest living member, said.
So far this year, at least 1,645 people have died from the toxic drug supply in B.C., representing the leading cause of death for people aged 10 to 59. In fact, more people in that age category die from toxic drugs than all homicide, suicide, accident and natural disease deaths combined.
At least 12,929 British Columbians have died since B.C. declared a public health emergency in April 2016.