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NEWS AND VIEWS: Public use vs. public safety in Nelson

Tom Thomson writes about the toxic drug crisis
Nelson and District Chamber of Commerce executive director Tom Thomson. Photo: Tyler Harper

by Tom Thomson

The economic development of any community relies upon its reputation as a safe, viable region in which to locate and do business with supporting infrastructure, community assets, and most importantly customers willing to walk in the door. However, if customers feel unsafe, they won’t come.

The provincial government in the first half of 2023 has directed funds at mental health and addiction issues which may, in time, alleviate some of the current issues experienced by businesses dealing with the downstream effects of homelessness, including individuals who are unable to find addiction treatment or stable living environments. While waiting for changes, and for proposed funding to take effect, businesses need better tools now to assist in keeping their doors open and customers coming in.

Decriminalization of several illicit drugs effective Jan. 31 this year is not working in its current form, and now B.C. municipalities are left to grapple with the problems that are becoming unmanageable.

The fallout of public use has caused a firestorm of issues for municipalities across B.C. The public health crisis and overdose deaths from the toxic drug crisis have been mounting for seven years. There have clearly been unintended consequences from decriminalization.

Since May of this year, the Chamber, the mayor and city administration, non-profits and other community leaders have met with Deputy Premier Mike Farnworth, as well as Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jennifer Whiteside. There is no doubt that the province has heard loud and clear, not just from the City of Nelson but every municipality in B.C., that decriminalization in its current form is flawed.

Waiting on the government to put some public safety measures in place perhaps in October, municipalities and regional districts throughout B.C. have addressed the issue through a mix of proposed bylaw changes; more mental health services to counteract the alarming rise in random acts of violence, property crimes and vandalism; and by a new focus on the bail restrictions imposed on repeat offenders.

Very little has changed in actual numbers of treatment facilities and support, but falling back on mental illness as a catch-all for violence is creating its own new stigma of mental health diagnosis and care.

This week, the City of Nelson moved one step closer to enacting a made in Nelson solution to the public use, and public safety. The Parks Amendment (Public Nuisance) Bylaw proposed to amend the City of Nelson Parks Bylaw by adding the definition of illicit drugs and then setting out the parks where the use of illicit drugs is prohibited. (Editor’s note: City council voted in favour of the bylaw Tuesday night. Click here to read more.)

These locations have been selected as they are the park spaces most used by children on a regular basis for recreational and other leisure activities.

The proposed bylaw does not prohibit use of illicit drugs in all park spaces in the city.

The Nelson and District Chamber of Commerce Board is supportive of the City of Nelson and efforts to prohibit public consumption of controlled substances in city parks and beaches.

In fact, the Chamber feels that the bylaw should also include other public spaces in the downtown core. Public sidewalks, benches, and business alcoves are prominent locations where consumption is currently taking place. Many of these locations should fall under the no smoking-vaping in public spaces within 10 metres of doorways category.

The Chamber is not advocating for criminalizing the use of these controlled substances but would like to see an ability to enforce current no-smoking bylaws, and the proposed Parks Amendment bylaw.

The goal should be to balance the needs of individuals who use drugs with the needs of the broader community, including businesses and residents, to create safe and healthy communities for all.

We should be supportive of the establishment of a well-managed designated area where individuals can use drugs safely and without fear of legal repercussions. These areas, commonly referred to as safe consumption sites, have been shown to reduce the negative consequences associated with drug use, such as toxic poisoning deaths, and could help mitigate the impact of public substance use on communities.

This location should be provided where impact on residential, business and community is avoided or limited, and where user clients can be monitored and cared for after using.

Tom Thomson is executive director for the Nelson and District Chamber of Commerce.

READ MORE: Nelson council passes drug use ban in city parks