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Rob Shaw: Brad West breaks ranks with his NDP brethren on decriminalization of drugs

The system isn't working for those who need help, PoCo mayor argues
Port Coquitlam Mayor Brad West says he's had enough of a provincial policy that doesn't work on drug decriminalization | Kyle Balzer, Tri-City News

It was when a drug user verbally accosted kids and parents at a children’s birthday party in a Port Coquitlam park last week that Mayor Brad West had finally had enough. Calling it the “straw that broke the camel’s back,” West said it crystallized for him how wrong the B.C. NDP government’s direction has been on decriminalization of illicit drugs, and how the province is utterly failing to see the consequences playing out daily in B.C.’s parks and city streets.

“The parents actually said to the person, ‘Do you mind not doing that here?’ And they got a very expletive-laden response,” said West. “So, that sort of situation to me is completely unacceptable.”

Port Coquitlam became the latest B.C. community Tuesday night to pass an updated bylaw restricting open drug use in public places — a response, municipal politicians say, to the province implementing decriminalization in March without proper consideration of how it would increase drug use in parks, playground and beaches.

West said he can’t reconcile what the provincial government is saying while defending decriminalization, with the real-world impacts he’s seeing in his city.

“I’m concerned about responding to the on-the-ground reality in Port Coquitlam, not living in technicolour somewhere else while prescribing some sort of academic exercise about how this is all supposed to work,” West said in an interview.

“I get that there’s a theory behind all of this. But, the way this has been rolled out, the way this is playing out on the streets, in the parks, in the playgrounds of our communities, it doesn’t look like it’s going according to plan.”

The NDP government has for months fought back against critics of decriminalization, including the first tranche of mayors, by accusing them of fear-mongering, stigmatizing and shaming those suffering addictions during an overdose crisis. But as criticism increased from all quarters, Premier David Eby declared in mid-May he would do “something” about the issue.

More than a month later, mayors like West are still waiting to see action.

West is a long-time New Democrat supporter, and many consider him a future MLA and perhaps one-day leader of the party. So his criticism of the NDP’s drug policy carries with it an extra sting.

“In doing this, probably there will be blowback from certain corners,” he said. “But to me, that’s water off a duck’s back. That’s not what I’m concerned about.”

“I’m not going to sugar coat that or try and dress that up, that’s the reality,” West added. “Let's deal with it. That’s not some right-wing knuckle-dragging sort of position. That’s about dealing with the reality of what’s happening.

“And by the way, also wanting to have a fulsome, compassionate response to people who are struggling with addictions issues. But this sort of single minded focus on just one aspect without giving due consideration to all of the impacts I don’t think is getting us any further, doesn’t seem to be improving the situation. The number of deaths from illicit drugs, overdose, drug poisoning, it just continues to march upwards.”

B.C.’s chief coroner and provincial health officer this month held a press conference not only defending government’s drug policies, decriminalization and safe supply, but urging the province to go further and consider an expansion toward a future in which illicit drugs like cocaine, heroin and meth are regulated by the province similar to cannabis.

Eby has said he will continue to be guided on government drug policy by those experts. But West said those experts, along with academics urging these reforms, only see part of the picture.

“Not a lot of people would say this but I will, I feel like they are out of touch with reality,” he said.

“They pour over numbers and they talk to their colleagues or people who have the same credentials as them in other jurisdictions, and I think there’s a lot of reinforcement that happens of their views.

“I went into this without any preexisting view of how this should be addressed, but what I’ve done is talked to real people in my community who are trying to navigate this challenge and who encounter the system not as it’s described in a press release but the system it actually is for someone who is trying to get support or help.”

West said he had a family approach him three weeks ago in tears, desperate to get their daughter into drug treatment during the brief windows in which she asks for help. But there were always wait times for beds. Demanding that treatment be improved is not an ideological right-wing attack on the current NDP government, it’s quite simply a required part of getting someone help, he said.

“When they call for help, the system is unapproachable, it’s bureaucratic, it’s complicated and has these lengthy waits,” said West. “It seems like there’s a hell of a lot of work that needs to be done.”

The Opposition BC United has urged government to recall the legislature immediately and pass provisions that would give municipalities expanded powers to ban open drug use in public places during the busy summer months when children are out of school.

“It’s just a stubborn refusal by the premier,” said MLA Peter Milobar. “Why delay until October? Call the legislature back, let’s deal with this, acknowledge they made an error, and they can get on with their lives.”

The BC United attacks on decriminalization, and the NDP’s subsequent defence, have made the issue too political, said West.

“I absolutely hate it — the people of British Columbia get done such a disservice when important issues like this just become talking points and political bombs to lob back and forth,” he said.

“Government gets entrenched, and has a knee-jerk defence to any criticism no matter how valid, and the opposition looks to exploit and make a political spectacle out of any failing. And around and around it goes.”

Tuesday night’s vote on strengthening Port Coquitlam’s bylaws on drug use in public places was unanimously supported by council.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 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. [email protected]