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Rob Shaw: Late in the day, David Eby recognizes broad public concern on open drug use

The premier promises to do something to deal with public safety
BC United critic Shirley Bond worries that schoolchildren this summer will encounter drug paraphrernalia in public areas.

It took until the last question on the last day of the spring session of the B.C. legislature on Thursday for the NDP government to begin to admit that it was out of step with the public mood on open drug use.

Premier David Eby suddenly opened the door to change on the issue, after spending weeks defending his government’s response to rising concerns about drug use in city parks, playgrounds, beaches and streets.

The move came in response to a question from BC United critic Shirley Bond, who noted schools will soon adjourn for summer and children will find themselves playing in public areas that might contain needles, drug paraphernalia and even people openly using.

“The last thing families want to do is have their child bring home a pack of fentanyl and drug paraphernalia, which has actually happened under this premier's watch,” said Bond.

“They want this premier to demonstrate an ounce of leadership, and he could do it today — not wait, not talk, not dodge, not weave. It is time for him to do the right thing, and he should do that right now. Will he get up and put in place a ban on drugs like heroin, meth and fentanyl from public spaces that include children's playgrounds, beaches and parks? Will he do it today?”

The premier stood to respond as the final minutes ticked off the clock in the final question period.

“I am happy to commit to the members on the other side, to all the members of this house, to British Columbians, to parents of kids, that our government will work with local government partners to make sure that those protections are in place,” he said.

“Nobody wants this activity affecting our kids, and we will do something.”

It’s not clear what the “something” is, or when the government will “do” it, but even admitting that the government needs to act in a province-wide fashion on the issue is new for the Eby administration.

So far, the premier has attempted to tackle individual municipal dissent on public drug use in a one-off fashion.

When Nanaimo began publicly complaining about a crisis, Eby took his attorney general and solicitor general up to the Harbour City in March to reassure council the province would respond with an individualized plan to homelessness, addictions and crime. For his efforts, he was met by protesters.

When Kamloops floated a motion to ban drug use in city parks, and began fighting openly with the local public health officer, Eby went up to meet the mayor and offer more provincial resources.

But the premier is only one man, with limited time and a lineup of people wanting to monopolize him. He can’t continue to rush to individual communities on the issue.

The scope of the crisis appears to have dawned on New Democrats after 30 members of the Lower Mainland Local Government Association passed a resolution last week asking for drug use in public spaces, including parks and libraries, be banned. That’s a big chunk of the NDP’s power base in Metro Vancouver, unhappy with the state of affairs.

Technically, their request was for Health Canada to expand its list of exemptions to the decriminalization experiment that the federal and provincial government started in January, which allows people to carry small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use without fear of arrest.

But Health Canada and the federal Liberal government have gone silent on decriminalization, as critics like Conservative leader Pierre Polievre turn it into a wedge issue. So the B.C. government has borne the brunt of the blowback by those linking decriminalized drug possession to increased drug use in public places, as well as a rise in vandalism, crime and random attacks.

BC United leader Kevin Falcon, who has scored major political points on the issue the last few months, said Eby should get busy on changes immediately.

“I want the premier to know we will come back on a moment’s notice this summer, any time, to pass a piece of legislation to ensure that we’ve got the proper guardrails in place to protect our children,” Falcon said Thursday, throwing the gauntlet down on a timeline.

“I ask the premier to do the right thing, pull the legislature back so we can pass that and protect our children.”

It’s unlikely Eby will recall the legislature for a public drug use bill. All options to pass a cabinet order, or public health regulation, will be exhausted first.

But even opening the door to this kind of talk is an extraordinary move for the NDP.

“Premier Eby made it clear today that we will be engaging with local governments to find ways to both protect lives and save lives, but also ensure that communities can have the safety they believe they need,” said NDP house leader and Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon, in his end-of-session media event Thursday.

“So that will be the work we need to do in the weeks and months ahead.”

New Democrats don’t have months to work on the issue. Angry parents and concerned local governments are going to ramp up the pressure within the next few weeks, as schools begin to close for the summer. The government would be wise to move quickly on the issue. It’s already wasted enough time not listening.

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]