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‘Unconstitutional’: Harm reduction nurses suing B.C. over public drug use ban

Nurses association says new restrictions are putting drug user’s lives at further risk
Moms Stop the Harm advocates and supporters gather in Victoria on April 14, 2022 to mark the sixth anniversary of the toxic drug death public health emergency. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

A national group of harm reduction nurses is taking the B.C. government to court over its latest restrictions on where people can consume drugs.

The Harm Reduction Nurses Association says the province’s new sweeping bans on public drug use run counter to the goals of decriminalization, put people who use drugs at further risk of death and are, ultimately, unconstitutional. The group filed a lawsuit against the provincial government and attorney general in B.C. Supreme Court on Nov. 9.

It comes in response to legislation the B.C. NDP introduced in September that severely limits where people can consume drugs. This includes within 15 metres of playgrounds, splash parks and skate parks, within six metres of the entrance to a store, workplace or home and in most parks, beaches, outdoor recreation areas and sports fields. That’s in addition to restrictions introduced alongside decriminalization, which ban drug use near schools and childcare facilities.

Under the new rules, if a police officer believes they see someone using drugs in a restricted area and the person refuses to leave, the officer has the right to arrest them and seize their drugs. That person can then face up to $2,000 in fines and up to six months in prison.

The Harm Reduction Nurses Association argues in its lawsuit that it is not within the province’s power to criminalize consumption. In Canada, criminal law is federal jurisdiction.

The association further says the new legislation runs counter to the province’s goals of decriminalization, which were to decrease the number of interactions between people who use drugs and law enforcement, as well as reduce the level of stigma they face.

READ ALSO: B.C. drug users group says new consumption rules stigmatizing them further

By limiting where people can consume drugs in public, the association says B.C. is impeding drug users’ rights to life, liberty and safety, as promised under Canada’s Charter of Rights of Freedoms. It says B.C. is also restricting the ability of people like its 220 members from providing harm reduction services.

The association says because B.C. only has 47 overdose prevention and safe consumption sites, and most of them are limited to urban areas, people already have limited places where they can use drugs. By further restricting people’s options, the association says B.C. is increasing the chance of people using alone and dying.

In its lawsuit, the Harm Reduction Nurses Association asks for the province to recognize its alleged infringement of the Constitution Act and Charter of Rights of Freedoms. The group also calls on B.C. to follow through on a 2016 ministerial order from then-Health Minister Terry Lake, which required overdose prevention services be implemented in “any place there is a need for these services.”

The order was made shortly after the province declared a public health emergency in relation to the jump in toxic drug deaths B.C. was experiencing. Since then, more than 13,000 people have died, according to the BC Coroners Service.

The B.C. government has not filed a response to the lawsuit as of publication.

READ ALSO: B.C. excludes playgrounds, rec areas from drug decriminalization trial

READ ALSO: B.C. rejects experts call for non-prescription access to safer drug supply

About the Author: Jane Skrypnek

I'm a provincial reporter for Black Press Media.
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