As the province begins its three-year foray into the decriminalization of people who use drugs, local governments are seeking guidance on what role — if any — they retain in bylaw enforcement.
B.C. has been granted an exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act from Health Canada, and from now until Jan. 31, 2026, adults will not be subject to criminal charges for possession of less than 2.5 total grams of specific still-illegal drugs for personal use. Simply holding small amounts of certain opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA will not be cause for arrest, charges, or seizures — but the devil remains in the details.
For example, provincial officials have been quick to point out that possession of these drugs in any amount will continue to be a criminal offense on K-12 school grounds and at licensed child care facilities. Vancouver International Airport reminded travelers that criminal penalties would still be applied in airports and at borders. And the exemption does not apply to anyone under the age of 18.
But with respect to drug use in public spaces, it’s less clear whether existing bylaws already cover related behavior. In the Capital Regional District (CRD), Planning and Protective Services general manager Kevin Lorette told CRD directors it’s too early to understand what implications decriminalization will have on the use of these substances in public areas — particularly given questions about whether CRD’s Clean Air bylaw could even apply.
“Island Health has expressed a lack of clear evidence of the public health risk of secondhand smoke of controlled substances,” said Lorette during a Feb. 1 report to CRD’s Hospitals and Housing Committee, “as well as concerns about amending the Clean Air bylaw to include controlled substances.”
Since these substances are illegal, explained Lorette, ethical and legal approval for research on them has been historically difficult to obtain, resulting in few studies being conducted; B.C.’s Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) has been expanding this body of evidence, but there is no consensus.
Amendments to public health bylaw require approval of the Ministry of Health, he added, and likely required medical health officer approval. And while some of these issues are being hashed over by a working group on decriminalization — established by the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions, and with CRD representation — possible barriers to enforcement in public spaces raised a few eyebrows among directors.
“Cigarettes and alcohol are legal substances, [use of which] in our local parks and rec facilities is prohibited,” said Salt Spring Island electoral area director Gary Holman. “It’s hard to enforce, but they are technically banned. If we wanted to apply [drug smoking] policies in our local parks, would we have to change our bylaws to do that?”
“It is possible to smoke crack cocaine, fentanyl and heroin,” said Southern Gulf Islands electoral area director Paul Brent. “I guess we have no power against people smoking these substances in our parks?”
CRD Health and Capital Planning senior manager Michael Barnes said that while enforcement couldn’t fall under the Clean Air Bylaw specifically, there might be “other opportunities” for enforcement through other bylaws.
“For example, nuisance bylaws,” said Barnes. “In the parks, certainly, there’s a concern around the danger of starting fires.”
Barnes told directors that officers would also be able to enforce the Trespass Act, if someone consuming a substance on private property was trespassing. And Lorette pointed out that even where other bylaws do not apply, a big part of decriminalization should involve officers speaking with people openly using controlled substances to provide them with information about local supports.
“We may have an opportunity under our Clean Air Bylaw in the future,” added Lorette, “once recommendations come out of the working group. BCCDC heard all the concerns around the table; it is a two-way dialogue.”
I find this approach to drugs to be absolutely astonishing. I don’t want to feel unsafe taking my kids downtown because of flagrant drug use. It feels like the fabric of what makes BC a great place is about to start falling apart.
I totally agree. Victoria downtown businesses are suffering through vandalism and subsequent losses. We know about Vancouver. I am sorry the street community suffers through mental illness and addiction with no safe place to call home. But there’s a new element on Saltspring. They bring more drugs, violence and vandalism.