Island Health’s medical health officer is not buying Campbell River city council’s new rationale for a bylaw amendment banning public drug consumption.
The city backed down on its first attempt to pass this bylaw when it faced a legal challenge by Pivot Legal Society on the grounds that it was outside the city’s jurisdiction to pass public health measures, something city council was told by Dr. Charmaine Enns, Island Health medical health officer. The bylaw is a response to Health Canada decriminalizing possession of small quantities of illicit drugs implemented at the beginning of the year at the Province of British Columbia’s request.
A new attempt to pass the bylaw was on the agenda of the April 27 city council meeting where it was to receive 1st, 2nd and 3rd reading. This version was revised to take a different tack by focusing on protection and enhancement of community well-being rather than public health measures. It also forgoes the attempt to regulate the issue throughout the city and, instead, limits its reach to specific locations.
Dr. Enns spoke out again in a letter to council which was included on council’s April 27 council meeting agenda.
“In regards to the statement contained in the Staff Report that ‘the purpose for the amendment is not in relation to public health’, I respectively disagree,” Dr. Enns wrote in her April 26 letter. “The proposed bylaw amendments and their potential impacts are without doubt of public health significance and clearly in relation to public health.
“The intent of decriminalization through the section 56 exemption is an evidence based intervention with three primary goals; to reduce stigma for those who use substances, to increase access to health services and care, and to reinforce the understanding that substance use is a health issue and not a criminal issue.”
Dr. Enns said, “Based on the evidence that is currently available, it remains my opinion that there will be no benefit to the population of Campbell River generally and most likely significant harm to a select population that use substances, with the implementation of the proposed bylaw amendments.”
Dr. Enns said what is particularly concerning is the city’s rationale that the proposed bylaw appears to be the discomfort felt by people in shared public spaces but the majority of toxic drug deaths occur in private residences or indoors. In the Campbell River area, four out of five deaths occur indoors. She also points out that 13 people have already died in Campbell River from overdose in the first three months of 2023.
Dr. Enns says the rate of death from overdose in Greater Campbell River is more than double that of Vancouver Island generally.
At the April 27 council meeting, council voted to give the bylaw first and second readings. Consideration of third reading was postponed to the first council meeting in June.
A summary from the April 27 meeting from the city says, “Council recognized the proposed bylaw as an important step in promoting the use and enjoyment of public spaces by the entire community and moving the dial on downtown revitalization efforts. Feedback from residents, businesses, and visitors stating that the consumption of controlled substances in certain public locations can result in disruptive behaviours and avoidance of said spaces was acknowledged.”
While the city maintains that the proposed bylaw does not address public health, “calls for thoughtful consideration, from Island Health, the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions and others were heard. Council supported a request from Dr. Reka Gustafson, Chief Medical Health Officer for Island Health to present to Council. The city will also meet with the Minister of Mental Health and Addictions in May and was pleased that the Minister instructed ministry and health-authority staff to collaborate with the city on safe and effective approaches to address harms associated with substance use.
“The city supports efforts to increase access to health services and has lobbied the Provincial government for many years to invest in health-authority-delivered mental health and substance use services, treatment and recovery services and supportive and transitional housing to address homelessness. Council has contributed land and financial support for these efforts and recently passed a resolution to respond to the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions requesting expanded access to harm reduction services at the Campbell River Overdose Prevention Site. Council also asked for funding for security and cleanup to minimize negative impacts on the surrounding neighbourhood.
“The city is hopeful that this bylaw and subsequent motions will be the start of many fruitful discussions with the province to address these complex issues.”