One of the key parts of Penticton’s proposed Safe Public Spaces bylaw has been caught up in debate over substance use.
Interior Health recently sent out a letter to communities in the region for a pause before putting in place regulations on substance use in public spaces for at least six months, in order to observe the impact of the recent decriminalization legislation. The letter is signed by the six medical health officers in charge of Interior Health’s regions.
Under the Safe Public Spaces bylaw, Penticton is proposing to ban open drug use in public locations, while leaving safe consumption and other designated sites alone.
“Implementing blanket bylaws broadly that prohibit public consumption of illicit drugs and fining individuals who choose to do so does not address the underlying causes related to addiction and may undermine the goals of decriminalization,” said Dr. Sue Pollock, the IH medical health officer who supports the South Okanagan. Such enforcement activities may encourage individuals to use drugs alone or out of view, thereby increasing the risk of death due to the toxic drug supply.”
Since the decriminalization for personal use went into effect on January 31, there have been repeated toxic drug and overdose alerts issued by Interior Health. In the last four weeks, there have been four that apply to users in Penticton that warn of high risks of overdoses and fatal overdoses.
The Penticton and Wine Country Chamber of Commerce sent out a letter on April 21 expressing their opposition to any delays to the bylaw.
“One could argue that Penticton, along with the rest of province, has waited long enough already,” reads the letter. “…Local governments must take action to protect their residents and economies until such time as the province and its various health authorities implement meaningful measures to deal with this epidemic.”
City spokesperson Shane Mills confirmed the communication between the city and IH, and noted that it concerns one section of the proposed bylaw as well as puts in place exemptions for any supervised consumption and overdose prevention facilities run by IH and BC Housing.
“The City is currently gathering feedback on the full scope of the proposed bylaw from health officials, community partners and residents,” said Mills. “The results of this engagement process will be shared with Council in the next several weeks where Council will have the opportunity to consider the feedback from Interior Health and other interested parties prior to considering further readings and adoption of the bylaw.”
The other aspects of the bylaw, such as designating bylaw officers as ‘peace officers’ to increase their authority are not part of Interior Health’s request for a delay.
Penticton’s proposed bylaw is also similar to ones being considered by other communities in the province as they grapple with how to curtail public substance when personal possession is no longer a crime.
The letter from the Chamber of Commerce notes that comparisons and references to Portugal’s model of dealing with substance use often fail to include discussion of the services the country has available for people with substance use issues.
“In Penticton, we were denied funding from Interior Health for a Car-40 program and do not have outreach workers that you’d typically see in an urban centre to guide those suffering from addiction into treatment,” said the Chamber’s executive director Michael Magnusson. “The contents of the proposed bylaw put forward to Mayor and Council are not punitive, but rather help ensure that public areas, especially those visited by families, seniors, tourists, and areas around storefronts are kept as safe and accessible as possible while those with drug dependencies are still able to utilize designated consumption sites.”
Interior Health said that they welcome opportunities to work with local governments, and that they hope to use the six months to see if there are any changes to substance use before working with public health and service providers, and people who use drugs to consider what potential policies would be most appropriate to address challenges.
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