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‘Hasty’ drug use ban won’t serve community well– medical health officer says

Dr. Charmaine Enns urged Campbell River city council to wait six months, ‘seek sound advice’
Dr. Charmaine Enns, the North Island medical health officer, recently sent a letter to Campbel River city council urging them to hold off on a illegal drug consumption bylaw. (Black Press file photo)

North Island medical health officer Dr. Charmaine Enns asked Campbell River city council to hold off for six months before passing a bylaw making it illegal to consume drugs on public property.

“This would allow staff to monitor the situation to determine if there is, in fact, an increase in public drug use and give council the time to seek sound public health advice,” Enns says in a Jan. 25 letter to city council.

Passage of the bylaw on Jan. 26 was rushed to coincide with an exemption from federal drug laws that came into effect Jan. 31 that allows British Columbians 18 and over to possess up to 2.5 grams of street drugs – including cocaine and fentanyl – without fear of penalty or seizure, provided the drugs are for personal use.

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

Council passed the bylaw to counteract this three-year federal exemption given to the province of British Columbia at the province’s request. It would fine people consuming drugs within the City of Campbell River up to $200.

Council rejected Enns’ last minute request and passed third reading of the bylaw at its Jan. 26 regular council meeting. A motion to receive Dr. Enns’ letter and its appeal to council to take the time and gather more facts was defeated.

“Receipt” of a letter is a procedural step that allows it to be entered into the public record after which councillors can debate it or not. It’s a formal recognition that council has received and read the message contained in it. Of course, all the councillors had likely read the letter, a copy of which was emailed to all of them.

READ MORE: City of Campbell River prepares for decriminalization by passing ban on public drug consumption

Postponing passage of the bylaw was one of the options in a report for council prepared by city staff ahead of the meeting. Enns encouraged council to accept the suggested six month wait which would allow staff to monitor the situation to determine if there is, in fact, an increase in public drug use arising from the federal exemption and give council the time to “seek sound public health advice.”

“At this time, we are not anticipating an increase in public drug use in communities as this has been a long standing issue and the status quo hasn’t served as an effective deterrent,” Enns says in her letter.

“Council’s haste with due consideration of the evidence, impacts and other tools to address the issues of public substance use will not serve the community or its citizens well,” Enns says. “It is important to recognize that enforcement activities can drive people to use drugs alone and can elevate risk of death. The preference is to emphasize referral to health and social supports including overdose prevention sites.”

The intent of decriminalization of possession of small amounts of illicit substances for personal use is to reduce the stigma associated with substance use and to reinforce that an individual’s substance use is a health issue rather than a criminal one, Dr. Enns says.

This approach further breaks down the barriers that prevent people from getting support and creating new pathways to life-saving services, Dr. Enns continues. In preparation for this policy change, the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions is working with the BC Centre for Disease Control to develop guidance for local governments on taking a public health approach to substance use, including public consumption. These resources will be available this spring, and will provide tools to assist staff in formulating evidence-informed recommendations to council.

Dr. Enns suggests that when making public health decisions, “it is necessary to consult the local medical health officer and consider both the pros and cons of a proposed policy and assessing the risks to the public weighted against the risk of driving people at risk of drug poisoning deaths to be alone in private settings.”

Dr. Enns adds that any enforcement policy should be guided by the preservation of human dignity, use discretion and prioritize education over fines or other punitive measures.

READ MORE: More detox facilities needed to battle toxic drug crisis — local MD

A previous version of this story said that all but one councillor voted against the motion to receive the letter. This was incorrect, the motion to receive the letter did not obtain the unanimous vote required for receipt. One councillor, Ron Kerr, voted against receipt, thus defeating the motion.