Nanaimo council is pushing for a report from city staff on options to regulate the use of controlled substances in public spaces, following a motion that stirred up discussion at city hall.
The motion at council’s meeting on Monday was brought forward by Coun. Ian Thorpe, who said it comes amid local residents’ “constant concerns and complaints” about open drug use.
“At this point, I am not proposing a bylaw, though I may do so in the future based on the information that I receive if this motion passes. But I am looking for options and advice on options,” Thorpe told council.
“My motion is not about targeting people, it’s about targeting behaviour which is concerning, very concerning to our citizens,” he said.
“We want people to feel comfortable walking on downtown streets or being in public parks and squares, not have to be confronted with the open use of drugs or the resulting paraphernalia.”
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Thorpe noted that people aren’t allowed to smoke or drink in public places like parks and playgrounds, “but now, apparently, it’s okay to do drugs,” he said. “And that just does not make sense to me.”
On Jan. 31, B.C. became the first province in Canada to decriminalize drug possession for personal use.
“The mechanism that we really have to enforce such bylaws are either ticketing or RCMP powers, and the whole point of decriminalization was to not have RCMP spending their resources on that,” said Coun. Tyler Brown, who was opposed to the motion.
“Often, the folks that we would be ticketing … the life circumstance doesn’t allow them to pay such a ticket,” he said.
Coun. Paul Manly, who was also opposed, finds that the majority of people using drugs in public are homeless, and he’s concerned regulating drug use would “(drive) them into the bushes, and that is where they will die.”
The councillor also recalled when the Nanaimo Area Network of Drug Users (NANDU) shut down its drug overdose prevention site earlier this year.
“If we’re going to say that people can’t use drugs in public, where are they doing to use those drugs? We declared NANDU a nuisance property and they shut down. Where would we like to see NANDU operate in this community? Where do we want to see homeless people be able to use drugs safely?” he asked.
Coun. Hilary Eastmure alluded to her colleague’s comments, saying: “All it’s going to do is push people further out of the public eye, and as councillor Manly said, that’s when they die. Our numbers are already untenable.”
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Still, other councillors were all for Thorpe’s motion.
“I think we have to do something to also protect our most vulnerable … kids and older people who are no longer feeling safe to use our parks, or even the drugs that were found in our school grounds the other day luckily that some child didn’t ingest,” said Coun. Sheryl Armstrong.
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“I’d like staff to bring us a really good, fulsome report that includes options that we can fully debate,” said Coun. Erin Hemmens, as Mayor Krog added that he’s not about to sit back and watch “the horrors that exist in our streets without at least picking up a stone to throw against senior government’s window…
“I know it’s not going to work, necessarily, but I am not going to sit back and wait for something good to happen and drift down from Victoria or Ottawa that will solve the social crisis, the human crisis of our times,” he said.
Sarah Lovegrove, a registered nurse and co-chair of the Nanaimo Community Action Team, also spoke at the meeting and asked council to reconsider the existing motion and instead find solutions via a new approach.
“A reasonable option to consider to minimize public consumption is to have the city collaborate with Island Health to identify and designate spaces across the community that would increase accessibility of safe consumption and drug-checking services,” added Lovegrove.
“We need the immediate implementation of safe and secure housing solutions for all, with an emphasis on establishing a substance-use friendly housing initiative with wrap-around supports for complex care needs.”
By a vote of five to four, Mayor Krog and councillors Armstrong, Hemmens, Thorpe and Janice Perrino were ultimately in support of the motion, while councillors Brown, Manly, Eastmure and Ben Geselbracht were opposed.
The council meeting can be rewatched here.