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Rob Shaw: B.C. police chiefs plead for power over public drug use

Police chiefs tell MPs public drug use is out of control after small amounts were decriminalized
“In the wake of decriminalization, there are many of those locations where we have absolutely no authority to address that problematic drug use," Fiona Wilson, president of the BC Association of Chiefs of Police told MPs.

Sometimes you need a little bit of distance from a problem to see the situation clearly. Which is why the testimony of B.C.’s top police chiefs to a federal committee of MPs in Ottawa this week brought into sharp focus the issue of decriminalization — specifically, it’s many, troubling, ongoing, unintended consequences.

At the top of that list, the helplessness police feel to respond to the widespread open public drug use seen in the province after personal possession of under 2.5 grams of cocaine, meth, fentanyl and heroin was exempted from criminal charges last January.

“Can you talk about the correlation between decriminalization and public safety and public consumption?” Liberal MP Brendan Hanley asked police leaders in the Tuesday health committee meeting.

Responding was Fiona Wilson, president of the BC Association of Chiefs of Police, and deputy chief of the Vancouver Police Department.

“Prior to decriminalization, if someone was using drugs in a problematic circumstance, for example at a playground, or a bus shelter or a beach, community members were able to call 911, police were able to attend and address that circumstance,” she said.

“In the wake of decriminalization, there are many of those locations where we have absolutely no authority to address that problematic drug use, because the person appears to be in possession of less than 2.5 grams and they are not in a place that is an exception to the exemption.”

It was a stark comment, and not one we hear B.C. police leaders often say out loud — perhaps out of fear of retribution from the provincial NDP government.

Wilson said she supports B.C. and Ottawa trying to add exceptions to decriminalization in areas like skate parks and playgrounds, so that police could ask people to move along and arrest them if they refuse to comply.

“The reality is there are still a number of other circumstances where the public have significant concerns about public drug use, and when that happens, if it’s not in a place that’s an exception to the exemption, there’s nothing police can do,” she said.

“It’s not a police matter in the absence of any other criminal behaviour.”

To sharpen the point, Wilson gave an example to MPs on the all-party committee.

“So if you have somebody who is with their family at the beach and there’s a person next to them smoking crack cocaine, it’s not a police matter,” she explained. “Because a beach currently is not an exception to the exemption.”

Premier David Eby is attempting to create more exceptions, by banning open drug use in places like beaches, bus shelters and businesses. But that legislation is tied up in a court challenge.

Even those changes were made reluctantly, after the BC NDP claimed for most of last year that decrim was not a problem for police and bylaw enforcement officers, and that anyone who said otherwise was fear mongering.

Clearly, the NDP was spectacularly, wildly, wrong on that point. And even worse, police leaders explained the government failed to listen to their warnings.

“Is this a failure of implementation or a flaw in implementation you might say, or is decriminalization in itself a faulty principle?” asked Hanley.
“We all agree we do not want to criminalize people by virtue of their drug use, those days are gone,” replied Wilson.

“We want to support a health-led approach. The problem is, as I said earlier, that the devil’s in the details. And quite frankly police warnings were not heeded in the first instance.”

Police also offered little hope of help arriving in B.C.’s beleaguered hospitals, where nurses are complaining about open drug dealing and rampant drug use that has left them sick from toxic plumes of fentanyl smoke.

Turns out, police are hamstrung there too, because B.C. didn’t think to exempt hospitals from decriminalization.

“Do you think we should have an exemption from drug use in hospitals?” Conservative MP Laila Goodridge asked.

“Absolutely,” replied Wilson.

“The fact is, once again, when those conditions in a hospital become problematic there is nothing police can do about it.”

The NDP government insists drug use is not allowed inside hospitals. But if police can’t do anything about it, because of decriminalization, then who can? Nurses have been told not to seize drugs. Security guards aren’t trained to physically intervene. There’s nobody left to call.

Goodridge used the moment to twist the knife into the provincial NDP.

“It’s really unfortunate that you guys don’t have the tools to do what you need to do to keep our community safe,” she said to Wilson.

The federal health committee testimony was a disaster for the NDP government.

At one point, Wilson laid out the “can of worms” scenarios the province left police to deal with.

“If you have a nefarious business owner who has a licensed establishment, technically you could have a situation where an 18-year-old could use cocaine in a licensed establishment but can’t order a beer,” she said.

RCMP deputy commissioner Dwayne McDonald, who leads the B.C. division of the force, said recent seizures in Campbell River and Prince George do prove that organized crime is trafficking safe supply drugs people obtain from the government. But he diplomatically sidestepped questions from MPs about whether it is “widespread.”

“We have not seen it everywhere,” said McDonald. “However, I would say it’s an emerging concern.”

Wilson said almost 50 per cent of the prescription hydromorphone pills police find on the street are diverted illegally from safe supply into drug trafficking.

The admission caught Eby off guard.

“This is the first time we’ve heard that data,” he said Tuesday. “Our government wants this information. We want to identify how and where it’s being diverted, so we can minimize diversion.”

Thoroughly thumped for months now on the issue, Eby is very carefully starting to open the door to a pivot in advance of the October election.

“We are looking at options to ensure that we are meeting the very reasonable expectations of all British Columbians,” said the premier.

Does that include ending decriminalization, I asked him.

“I have the same concerns that many British Columbians do about public drug use in many inappropriate areas, and public drug use in hospitals, and making sure those tools are in place are critical,” he said.

“We are going to not leave this unaddressed.”

So far though, leaving a brewing mess unchecked is all New Democrats have done on the decriminalization file.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 16 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]

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