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Rob Shaw: B.C. can't escape drug decriminalization blowback

Other governments now pointing fingers at B.C.'s failed drug decriminalization pilot
The federal government has turned down Toronto's decriminalization bid citing public health and safety concerns following B.C.'s failed pilot.

B.C.’s NDP government would desperately like to move on from the issue of decriminalization, but the ripple effects of its politically disastrous experiment continue to echo right across the country.

The City of Toronto was the latest to be hit by that blowback, after its request to follow in B.C.’s footsteps for its own decriminalization pilot project was rejected by Ottawa.

The federal government remains in turtle mode on decriminalization, after being pummelled by Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre for weeks over the rampant street disorder and public drug use caused by the experiment.

So it was little surprise when Addictions Minister Ya’ara Saks issued a statement Friday saying she’d turned down Toronto’s request because “it does not adequately protect public health and maintain public safety.”

“This includes concerns with feasibility and ability for law enforcement to implement the proposed model, protection of youth and lack of support from key players including the Province of Ontario,” read the statement.

The Ontario government pointed to B.C.’s decision to reverse course barely 18 months into its three-year experiment, after police said they were powerless to drug use in public spaces, mayors complained about crime and disorder, and nurses said they were getting sick from fentanyl smoke due to open drug use inside hospitals.

“We are frankly surprised that, in the aftermath of British Columbia’s decision to walk back its decriminalization experiment, Toronto Public Health has not already rescinded its request,” read a joint letter by Ontario Health Minister Sylvia Jones and Solicitor General Michael Kerzner to Toronto, released just days before Ottawa’s rejection.

“The recent disastrous examples of British Columbia and other jurisdictions that have attempted this experiment are just the latest examples that show decriminalization does not work. Instead, it encourages dangerous behaviour in public spaces, victimizes innocent people and undermines law enforcement’s ability to protect our communities.”

But that did not deter Toronto public health officials, who, much like in B.C., pushed forward with the drug reform policies, seemingly oblivious to the flagging public and political support.

Toronto’s medical health officer, Dr. Eileen de Villa, reiterated her support for decrim in the wake of the rejection, saying “decriminalization is one evidence-informed policy tool” in the ongoing toxic drug crisis.

You have to wonder what “evidence” (in the form of a dry academic study, no doubt) could possibly supersede the failures of decriminalization on the ground, in the real world, in British Columbia. Or, what “informed” policy tool exists on the issue, when Oregon lawmakers completely abandoned decriminalization this spring after four years of policy failure.

Advocates continue to insist the policy is sound, it’s the politicians who are weak. But politicians represent the will of the public, and there’s no doubt mainstream public support for permissive drug policies has cratered recently.

Toronto public health officials were dreaming if they thought they’d skate to an approval after the two subnational governments that pioneered decriminalization in Canada and the United States had to abandon it.

“Ontario is 100 per cent opposed to your proposal,” the government’s joint letter to the city read.

“Under no circumstances will our government ever support your request, which would only add to crime and public drug use while doing nothing to support people struggling with addiction.”

B.C. started the decriminalization project last year hoping its success would allow others to join in time. But the BC NDP’s real legacy is that the bungled, ill-considered, poorly executed way it rolled out decriminalization has effectively salted the earth on the issue across the country for years, if not decades. No province will try it now. And no federal government is willing to risk it either.

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.

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