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Campbell River city council and North Island medical health officer struggle to find common ground

It was an, at-times, emotional and frank meeting of two solitudes coming at a problem from two different sides.
The Lake Cowichan area has had five deaths from toxic drugs in the first nine months of the year. (Citizen file photo)

It was an, at-times, emotional and frank meeting of two solitudes coming at a problem from two different sides.

Dr. Charmaine Enns, North Island Medical Health Officer, and Dr. Reka Gustafson, Vice President, Population Health and Chief Medical Health Officer, Island Health, appeared at city council’s May 9 Committee of the Whole meeting to discuss the proposed public nuisance bylaw that would prohibit the public consumption of controlled substances at certain public spaces in the city.

On the one hand, most city councillors represent a fed-up segment of the community, critical of and impatient with the B.C. health system’s harm reduction approach to addiction and homelessness and tired of directing millions of municipal dollars towards a problem that is just getting worse.

On the other hand, doctors Enns and Gustafson represent a professional health system that is charged with saving lives in a crisis that was once coming under control but which has, since the COVID-19 pandemic, begun to worsen. They’re also responsible for implementing measures that, were they not in play, would see the number of people dying from overdose spiral out of control.

When the bylaw was first proposed on Feb. 23 it gained the city some notoriety around the province. It was one of the first municipal governments to try and implement counter measures to an exemption Health Canada granted to the Province of British Columbia. That exemption decriminalizes the possession of up to 2.5 grams of street drugs, provided they are for personal use.

Dr. Enns had warned council that its first attempt to control unruly behaviour and homelessness downtown should have been developed with her input and health measures are not in the city’s jurisdiction. Consequently, the first version of two Public Nuisance Amendment Bylaws which would have banned drug consumption in the city and imposed fines of up to $200, were about to be challenged in court by poverty rights group Pivot Legal Society out of Vancouver. Pivot sought a petition for the B.C. Supreme Court to declare the bylaws out of the city’s jurisdiction.

The city quickly dropped its first versions of the amendment bylaws and came back with a revised version that takes 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, however, warned council again in an April 26 letter that the new bylaw was still encroaching on public health measures and therefore out of the city’s jurisdiction.

“In regards to the statement contained in the Staff Report that ‘the purpose for the amendment is not in relation to public health’, I respectfully 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.”

Dr. Enns had asked to be included in discussions about the bylaw and was invited to appear before council some months back. That appearance was finally able to happen at council’s May 9 Committee of the Whole meeting, months after the bylaw was initially proposed.

Dr. Enns provided an overview of the addictions crisis in Campbell River and she and city councillors discussed the crisis and the bylaw’s attempt to deal with it in a wide-ranging discussion. That discussion is available for public viewing – as is the whole meeting with city council – via the city’s website, (Look for CITY COUNCIL>Agendas, Minutes, Schedule & Webcasts>Webcasts>Archives)

Campbell River leads Vancouver Island in toxic drug deaths

Dr. Enns presented council with some of the facts and figures of toxic drug deaths and compared Campbell River with the rest of Vancouver Island. The comparison is not good.

“Campbell River leads the way, followed by Nanaimo. And then that’s followed by Alberni, Port Alberni,” Dr. Enns said.

With regards to decriminalization, which the city bylaw seeks to counter, Dr. Enns pointed out “a couple misconceptions.” One is that decriminalization is seen as the same as legalization. It is not, she said.

“Decriminalization is just meaning that the individual who is using substances for themselves is not a criminal,” Dr. Enns said. “It doesn’t mean the substances are legal, but it means they are not a criminal.”

Another misconception is that public consumption will increase with decriminalization.

“The evidence from other jurisdictions has not supported that, to date,” Dr. Enns said.

Meanwhile, Dr. Enns said that bylaws to restrict public consumption could be expected to have the opposite effect. Bylaws like that are going to actually push people back into the margins where they’re more likely to die from an overdose and less likely to access services.

Plus bylaws distract everybody from the “really important work of stabilizing people’s lives.”

Plus the bylaw is not necessary, Dr. Enns said. The city already has the tools it needs to control unruly behaviour and public consumption.

“You have tools to manage inappropriate behaviors at city facilities and including intoxication from any substance. It doesn’t matter what the substance is,” she said.

‘When are you going to do something?’

City councillors, however, strived to impress upon the doctors the challenge they face by public expectation that they do something about the crisis, particularly with it’s very visible manifestation as loitering, homelessness and an appearance of lawlessness in Campbell River’s downtown.

Coun. Ben Lanyon, after first stating that he doesn’t see any movement towards mandatory treatment, appealed to doctors Enns and Gustafson to get onside and help the city with the security aspect of the issue.

“I’d also love to see the Health Authority get on our side, as well, and give us some support to get us at least temporary funding for more security,” he said.

Mayor Kermit Dahl says he gets two kinds of emails on opposite sides of the issue. None of them are in the middle seeing both sides. Nor do any offer to do anything to help or propose solutions.

His emails say “either I’m ignorant because I don’t understand it. Or, when are you going to do something?”

He said it’s an important issue; so important that it lead to a wholesale change on city council during last fall’s municipal election.

The mayor was critical of the harm reduction approach that healthcare system is using, calling it a failure.

“Everyone talks about saving lives. This isn’t saving lives. This is managing failure,” Dahl said. “And I’m not as good at making this sound pretty as some of my friends around the table here. But the NDP party just spent billions of dollars in the last three months. And I don’t know of one recovery bed or one detox center that was created. And that would have made positive change and impact.”

The mayor said, “We all want the same thing. We all want to have less people dying.”

The upshot of the meeting for Dr. Enns was to initiate dialogue and begin to engage a “collaborative table that has all the really key players at the table,” including law enforcement, housing advocates, municipalities and First Nations.

“That wasn’t a comprehensive list, but it really is a complex issue that we’re all grappling with, and need to address together,” she said.


Possession of 2.5 grams of illicit drugs to be decriminalized in B.C.