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Recriminalizing drug use will help, but won't stop random violence, Victoria police chief says

There will still be people “struggling on our streets” with mental illness, addiction, intoxication or anger issues, Del Manak says
Victoria Police Chief Del Manak says he expects immediate, long-term changes on the tent-lined Pandora Avenue, where homelessness, violence, drug deals and drug consumption are on full display. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

Victoria Police Chief Del Manak says if drug consumption in public places is recriminalized, enforcement will be swift and street-level changes will be evident — but it won’t be a panacea.

“What you will see is less social disorder and less individuals — and hopefully no one — consuming drugs in public spaces,” said Manak. “That’s a good thing because it’s going to increase the public’s sense of security and safety, and it’s going to help the police department maintain order.”

Manak said, however, there will still be people “struggling on our streets” with mental illness, addiction, intoxication or anger issues, and the changes won’t stop “random attacks, or assaults or stabbings, or any of the other violence that we see.”

“I think we just have to be cautious that this change through Health Canada is not going to make a significant change in some of that crime.”

The province — which in 2021 asked the federal government to “decriminalize” possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use — asked Health Canada on Friday to amend its exemption from drug laws to “re-criminalize” both possession and use in public places.

If granted, the change will not end the decriminalization pilot, a move the BC United, B.C. Conservatives and the federal Conservatives have advocated.

People will still be able to possess 2.5 grams of illicit drugs such as fentanyl and cocaine in private residences, shelters, overdose-prevention sites and drug-testing sites without fear of arrest.

Mental Health and Addictions Minister Ya’ara Saks said Wednesday she’s still waiting for more information from the province to make the decision.

A statement from B.C.’s Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions said the province had received a request for more information on Wednesday morning and it had already responded with additional data on substance use along with possible guidance for police.

“We will continue to work quickly with the federal government so these changes can be enacted as soon as possible, so police can have the tools they need to address drug use in public spaces,” the statement said.

BC United leader Kevin Falcon grilled Premier David Eby about the issue in the legislature on Wednesday, asking the premier to “completely scrap this decriminalization disaster.”

Eby said the province and Health Canada are working together to make the changes as quickly as possible. “We’ve asked that they act with urgency, and it certainly seems they’re doing so.”

The premier added that if decriminalization was scrapped, people who use drugs would not be able to use toxic-drug testing services or supervised consumption sites because they would fear arrest.

“Why can’t we agree that in those places, police should not be arresting people for the possession of drugs?” said Eby. “I hope we can agree on that. That’s part of the request we made to Ottawa.”

Manak applauded the province for taking steps to ban public drug consumption and said the revised rules as proposed are clear for drug users to interpret and for police to enforce.

“No public consumption means no public consumption — everyone can understand that,” said Manak, adding the police approach will be compassionate and thoughtful, with the goal of getting drug users to co-operate once they’ve been told they cannot consume illicit drugs in public.

“They’ve got to pack up their belongings or their drugs and they need to go indoors,” said Manak. “The hope is that people will be compliant.”

In cases where people are aggressive or resistant, police will have the ability to seize the drugs or make an arrest and perhaps lay a criminal charge, he said. “Those will be done on a case-by-case basis.”

Eby said last week that arrests will likely only be made in extreme circumstances, but Manak said police will have to set down ground rules and ensure compliance from the outset if the law is to be upheld long-term.

“We may have to take a harder line, just to put the genie back in the bottle, just so that everyone understands what the new rules are,” said Manak, adding the goal is not to be heavy-handed but to ensure that “we’re direct in making sure that the drug users understand what the law is and that a lack of co-operation is going to lead to consequences.”

Manak said he expects immediate, long-term changes on the tent-lined Pandora Avenue, where homelessness, violence, drug deals and drug consumption are on full display.

Police are working with Our Place Society and the city to try to get people off the 900-block of Pandora and ensure they get supports, he said.

“We’re really taking a human-centric, person-centric approach to understanding each individual’s needs and looking at clusters and patterns and why they’ve ended up in the 900-block.”

Manak said chiefs of police in B.C. believe drug addiction is a health issue rather than a criminal one, and thus supported the province’s three-year decriminalization pilot “in good faith” that a number of other supports would be in place to help reduce overdose deaths — more than 14,000 since 2016.

Those supports either haven’t materialized or weren’t sufficient, Manak said. Nor has enough been invested in stopping drug gangs and shipments coming into the province, he said.

“We expressed concerns around public consumption, even when we supported it,” said Manak. “We asked for a strategy around recovery beds, treatment beds, prevention, and having a more holistic approach instead of just decrim.”

Eby noted Wednesday that the government has dedicated $1 billion to increase treatment options for British Columbians.