Vaughn Palmer: Courts at odds with public on open drug use

Opinion: NDP should be worried, Nanaimo mayor warns, as public likely to make this an election issue

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VICTORIA — While the New Democrats have said little about the court injunction against provincial restrictions on open drug use, other political leaders have been outspoken about the consequences.

Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog had one of the strongest comments on last week’s ruling by B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson.

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“The chief justice might well be right on the law,” said Krog, who is a lawyer. “But the politics of this and the public sentiment are very much opposed to what’s happened. Families do not want to see open drug use in the streets.”

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The mayor didn’t dispute the judge’s finding that some restrictions on open drug use could mean “irreparable harm” for some drug users.

“Yes, this is a restriction,” Krog conceded to Adam Stirling on CFAX radio.

“Yes, I understand that it will drive some folks into places where they may be taking drugs and suffering an overdose as a potentially serious harm as a result of the poisonous drugs,”

“I get all that,” said Krog. “But the public is tired of this.”

Then there was Port Coquitlam Mayor Brad West.

“The ruling really demonstrates just how out of touch with reality, unfortunately, many courts have become,” he told Mike Smyth on CKNW. “This doesn’t do the public any service at all.”

West noted how the provincial restrictions on drug use were relatively “modest,” imposing bubble zones of 15 metres around playgrounds and parks, six metres around bus stops and other public spaces.

“The fact that we can’t even have that, basically it takes us back to being the Wild West of public drug use, where it can happen anywhere and everywhere and I think the vast majority of the public rejects that.”

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Both West and Krog have political roots in the NDP. Krog served four terms as an NDP MLA before resigning to run for mayor of Nanaimo. Before West turned to civic politics, he was an aide and key supporter to NDP MLA Mike Farnworth.

As solicitor general, Farnworth steered the restrictions on open drug use through the legislature last fall. When the injunction was posted on Dec. 29, Farnworth provided the initial reaction from the government.

This “decision temporarily prevents the province from regulating where hard drugs are used, something every other province does, every day,” he said in a brief statement.

“We’re determined to keep doing everything we can to save lives in the face of the toxic drug crisis by treating drug addiction as a health matter rather than a criminal one, while recognizing that hard drugs should not be used in public places frequented by children and families, as well as vulnerable community members.

Hard drug use, here and elsewhere, should be subject to the kind of regulations that already govern “smoking, alcohol and cannabis,” Farnworth argued.

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Easier said than done.

The injunction itself is only temporary and expires March 31. But in ruling that restrictions on open drug use threaten the charter rights of drug users, Hinkson raised doubts that the legislation could survive a followup court challenge at a later date.

No wonder the New Democrats are still working on a more comprehensive response to the court.

“Tough spot for the province to be in,” as West noted in a posting on social media Friday. “The judge didn’t leave them a lot of room for manoeuvring. … Unintended consequences of opening Pandora’s box of decriminalization without thinking it through.”

The Port Coquitlam mayor recalled the principles of the “four pillars approach” to the drug problem.

“Prevention. Treatment. Harm Reduction. Enforcement. Instead, we get a constitutional right to use fentanyl wherever. We’ve lost our way.”

Krog agreed that the province had ventured into an “experiment” with decriminalization but without providing the necessary backstops.

“I think we’re going to see continuing open drug use,” he said, referring to the likely fallout from the court ruling.

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“Citizens will not be happy and everyone will continue to look to the province, and to some extent the federal government, for some real solutions to the street disorder that at the end of the day is literally killing our citizens because they have neither the access to supports or they are not interested because of the severe nature of the brain injury, the trauma, the addiction, the mental health issues.”

Yet having come this far, he sees no basis for turning back: “Are we really going to make things worse by going to what we had before, a policy of non-enforcement of the laws?”

Krog sees no option but for the government to step up with more funding and resources to get people off the streets and into treatment.

“We found hundreds of billions to deal with COVID, with great respect why can’t we find the money to deal with the topic that’s on everyone’s lips?”

Failing that, the Nanaimo mayor suggests a scenario that ought to chill any of his remaining friends in a government still hesitating about how to respond to the challenge from the courts:

Krog thinks that all this could turn into a “vote-determining” issue in the next provincial election.

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