Nelson City Council has passed a bylaw that bans drug consumption in city parks.
The vote passed 4-2 at its Aug. 8 meeting, despite an earlier presentation from Dr. Sue Pollock, a physician and medical health officer at Interior Health, who recommended that council wait until the B.C. government brings forward province-wide legislation about public drug use in the fall.
The bylaw, entitled Parks Amendment Bylaw (Public Nuisance), restricts the consumption of drugs from several parks in Nelson: Lakeside, Cottonwood, Rosemont, Queen Elizabeth, Gyro, and Lions Parks, as well as the municipal campground, the Hall Street Pier, Hall Street Plaza, the Nelson and District Community Complex, and within 10 metres of the Civic Centre. Two other locations — Chatham Street Park and within 10 metres of the Scout Hall — were added since the first and second reading of the bylaw on July 25.
The bylaw, which still has to return to council for an adoption vote likely later this month, will not involve ticketing or any other punitive measure, but rather it would give bylaw officers and police the authority to move people along.
A three-year federal exemption allowing for possession of up to 2.5 grams of illicit drugs including opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA for adults ages 18 and older went into effect Jan. 31. But the exemption does not say anything about where people can and can’t use drugs. It only bans possession from schools, child-care facilities and airports.
Voting in favour of the bylaw, Councillor Kate Tait said, “What we’re talking about here is preserving safe spaces for kids … we don’t want anyone picking up a needle or broken pipe in a playground area.”
Tait said she has recently spent time with many people whom she referred to as “vulnerably unhoused” and who referred to themselves as daily drug users.
She quoted one man on the subject of the bylaw: “I don’t want my struggles to be normalized or on display for children. We need spaces. We need appropriate locations.”
Voicing his opposition to the bylaw, Councillor Keith Page said he wanted to defer it and see what the province will bring forward. He said the bylaw is a piecemeal approach and wants to see concurrent action in other social areas such as housing. He said the city does not have a safe inhalation site yet, and this is indicative of the lack of a plan to deal the toxic drug crisis and its underlying causes.
Councillor Rik Logtenberg voted in favour, stating that he has spent time with users on the street, “multiple days, many hours.” He found almost unanimous support for the bylaw, because substance users understand the need for limits on behaviour around children. He was told that people causing problems in the community, including using in children’s spaces, are “the minority, many of them not from Nelson.”
Logtenberg said the bylaw is an expression of a social understanding about what is acceptable. He said the public backlash to public drug use is exacerbating the stigmatization of drug users.
Councillor Leslie Payne, who voted against the bylaw, said she has spent time over the past week speaking to people representing users on the street who were unanimously opposed. She said that in the absence of a safe inhalation site and other social supports, the bylaw seemed punitive and fragmented.
“Aiming to provide a level of dignity and safety for that community by passing a nuisance bylaw, just feels like it’s insulting,” Payne said.
Councillor Jesse Woodward, who was in favour the bylaw, called it a good start, and “the bare minimum for the whole community, for safety of all citizens.”
“It’s about where you can and can’t do illicit drugs. You can’t go down to Lakeside and drink a beer, you can’t smoke a cigarette near the playground.”
Councillor Jesse Pineiro was absent from the meeting.
Mayor Janice Morrison voted in favour of the bylaw.
“This is not a one-stop solution. I don’t know what the solution is to this problem.”
She criticized Interior Health for not having a plan, pointing out that public health is a provincial responsibility.
“That plan needs to not just have harm reduction, which is the only tool in the toolbox currently. It also needs to include recovery, and it needs to include recovery that is delivered in a rural setting … here, for our people, our friends, our relatives.”
In addition to recovery, the plan needs to include re-integration, she said.
Morrison said the provincial response will require significant resources that are permanent, and not dependent on the grant-writing skills of small non-profit organizations for temporary projects.
“Just make it happen”
In a presentation to council before the vote, Pollock was accompanied by IH managers Jordan McAlpine and Karen Leman.
They told council the bylaw would push drug use underground into unsafe spaces, creating higher risk of injury or death. They said it would perpetuate stigma and prevent users from seeking supports.
Tait asked Pollock why the province is not treating the drug crisis as an emergency.
“Just make it happen,” she said. “Build the places, get the complex care, go and find the space … If this is a crisis, we need to put the money into it quickly, and now.”
Page echoed this impatience, asking Pollock to explain the province’s plan to deal with the toxic drug crisis on provincial, regional and municipal levels.
“(We) don’t have something we can reference to say, ‘We know where we’re going,’” Page said.
“We don’t know where we’re going yet…,” Leman replied. “We don’t have a script or a pre-written template about what that’s going to look like here or in Trail or Castlegar. That’s going to be developed with the support of your staff here and your leadership here.”