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Rob Shaw: Eby empties his drug decriminalization initiative

Public concerns about open drug use forces the premier to backpedal
Rob Shaw writes that the pilot project on drug decriminalization has come apart, even if the premier insists not.

It’s still too early to declare B.C.’s decriminalization experiment a failure, but watching the NDP government backpedal away from the initiative Thursday was the clearest sign yet of what a political liability it has become.

Premier David Eby spent more than half an hour in front of reporters attempting to profess support for the idea of decriminalization, while also promoting new legislation that takes the whole pilot project out at its knees.

“Decriminalization was never about being able to use hard drugs wherever you wanted, and this law makes that very clear,” said Eby.

“It is vital for us to listen to people in the community about what they're seeing and to respond. Especially when we're grappling with the toxic drug crisis and trying different approaches to save lives.”

The new legislation undercuts two of the biggest metrics the government was planning to use to prove the success of decriminalization: A lessening of stigma felt by drug users worried about the risk of arrest, and a reduction in police seizures of drugs.

Government had argued both were critical — reduced stigma because it made it easier for people to ask for help, and reduced drug seizures because people in the throes of addiction wouldn’t have to scramble to replace their drug supply by committing crimes or undertaking unsafe behaviour.

The new legislation re-authorizes both arrests and drug seizures against people who use drugs in virtually any public space in the province, such as parks, playgrounds, beaches, bus stops, and near businesses and residences. Those who fail to comply face fines of up to $2,000, or six months in jail.

Given all that, it’s not unreasonable to expect stigma and seizure rates to worsen, as police conduct on-the-ground enforcement. That will, in turn, water down the measured benefits of decriminalization. It makes you wonder what the point of even continuing the pilot project is, when the government has all but doomed two of its biggest metrics to fail.

However, that’s not how the premier sees it.

His comments Thursday cast the new legislation as a step to saving decriminalization by addressing head-on the public concerns.

“We are trying a different approach here, but in order to be able to take that different approach, we need the public to understand they don't have to give up their communities,” said Eby.

“The parks need to be safe for people to go with their kids. The businesses need to be able to stay open, and people need to be able to take the bus without anxiety.

“I think we can strike that balance. And we'll hear the voices from both sides. But without question, the old system wasn't working. And without question, allowing people to use hard drugs wherever they like is not what British Columbians want either.”

It’s too bad for New Democrats that they were so sanctimonious about the issue when it was raised by local politicians in the spring. Municipalities first noticed the increased drug use, disorder and crime caused by decriminalization. But when the mayors of Campbell River and Kamloops became the first to call for action from the province in April, NDP ministers accused them of fear mongering.

Since then, New Democrats have been quietly climbing down off their high horse to address the public backlash.

That bungling has left the NDP open for criticism from all sides.

BC United leader Kevin Falcon said the changes don’t go far enough.

“We're scrapping this reckless decriminalization program,” he said. “It was poorly thought out, they did not have the proper guardrails in place, and this is just one of many examples of how decriminalization has failed.”

Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe, who has advocated expanding the provincial response to the worsening overdose crisis, said she was disappointed at the setback.

“I think this is about a perception of safety,” Lapointe told Postmedia. “This is a provincial piece of legislation that potentially reinforces the sense that you are at risk from people who use drugs, which is just simply not true.”

Eby expressed sympathy at the coroner’s concerns, but said British Columbians have to be brought along with provincial reforms on drug policies, and they can’t be left to feel like they are unable to safely access public spaces and businesses.

“We've heard concerns from people across communities in B.C. about what they've been seeing in communities, municipal leaders, business owners, and people waiting for the bus, asking government to address this issue, and we are doing that,” said Eby.

It’s also clear though that the government’s appetite for full-fledged decriminalization is changing. If the initial launch of the pilot project in January marked a step in one direction, then Thursday’s legislation represented a solid half-step backwards.

It won’t be enough for some. It will be too much for others. But the no-win situation the government finds itself in is entirely of its own making.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio. [email protected]