Residents Oppose Expanding Drug Use Sites to Suburban Vancouver

Residents Oppose Expanding Drug Use Sites to Suburban Vancouver

British Columbia’s rampant drug deaths have more than once thrust public health officials into uncharted territory. It became the first province to decriminalize small quantities of hard drugs for personal use in 2022, about two decades after Vancouver opened the first supervised injection site in North America. But as overdoses increase in some British Columbia towns, there is disagreement in one city about how to address it.

In Richmond, one of British Columbia’s largest cities, with 230,000 people, municipal council chambers turned raucous this week as a full public gallery of residents opposed a plan for staff to study whether a safe consumption site for drug users would be viable in the community. The plan was adopted on Tuesday, but the effort is off to a rocky start, with few officials and agencies standing up to defend it.

More than 100 residents signed up to speak in the meeting, some tearfully, others amid shouting. The city’s mayor of 22 years, Malcolm Brodie, competed with residents for control of the room, and tensions escalated to screaming matches in the hallway, where Mounties intervened.

[Read: Canada Decriminalizes Opioids and Other Drugs in British Columbia]

Residents expressed fears that the facility would be disruptive to the community and bring about drug-related crime and disorder.

“We don’t feel safe, and I don’t want Richmond to turn into another Hastings or Chinatown,” a resident, Swimmy She, told the Council, referring to two Vancouver neighborhoods hard hit by the opioid crisis, where open drug use is pervasive.

The divisions over the plan are “very concerning to me,” said Kash Heed, one of the councilors who brought the motion. He added that politics and discord in the community “created such an ugly situation now, with respect to something we want to do for our most vulnerable population that are dying in tents, or staying at home and dying on their own, because of the stigmatization attached to their acute drug addiction.”

Last year, 26 people died from drug use in Richmond. In the province, there were a record 2,511 deaths, and paramedics responded to more than 42,000 emergency calls for drugs, up 25 percent over the previous year. Most deaths were in Vancouver.

[Read: Fentanyl From the Government? A Vancouver Experiment Aims to Stop Overdoses.]

The motion by the Council asserts that the safe consumption site could benefit the city by reducing drug-related crime and improving addiction treatment.

But false information, including a claim that the site would provide drugs, has spread in social media groups, Mr. Heed, a former provincial safety minister and police officer, told me.

Cities do not have the authority to create safe consumption sites; that falls to the province. The plan that the Council approved on Tuesday is to study the establishment of a safe consumption site in the hospital precinct and to begin seeking approval from provincial authorities.

Earlier in the week, the provincial health minister, Adrian Dix, lent his support to the plan, pointing to the “remarkable” safety record of these facilities and evidence that they save lives. But outside the Council, there is little support for a new safe consumption site in Richmond.

Vancouver Coastal Health, a regional health authority that serves Richmond, said in statements to local news outlets that a stand-alone safe injection site would not be the “most appropriate service” because they work best in places with high concentrations of drug users.

Premier David Eby, of the New Democratic Party, and some members of the Legislative Assembly representing Richmond did not offer support for the Council’s plan when he was questioned about it at a news conference. Instead he cited the position of Vancouver Coastal Health.

The provincial government has brought legislation to ban public drug use in a sweeping list of spaces, like parks, beaches, playgrounds and areas near workplaces. Under the legislation, which was set to take effect on Jan. 1, police officers would direct users to other areas. But a judge on the province’s Supreme Court granted a temporary injunction against the ban until March, ruling that it threatened to cause “irreparable harm” to drug users by pushing them to less safe areas to do drugs. The province has appealed the decision.

Safe consumption sites have recently faced public complaints and lawsuits filed by community members. Last summer, Vancouver closed one such site after two years of operation. This week, members of a Toronto neighborhood asked the courts to approve a class action against a safe consumption site where seven months ago a mother was killed by a stray bullet; a community health worker at the facility was among those arrested.

More potent drugs are compounding the overdose crisis for frontline workers. Last week, the mayor of Belleville, in eastern Ontario, declared a state of emergency after 23 overdoses in two days, caused in part by the presence of the animal tranquilizer xylazine in the drug supply. Speaking at a news conference, he called on the provincial government to commit funds to support detox facilities.

“The magnitude of these issues and pressure being felt by our emergency services have reached a breaking point,” he said.

  • Last year, 70 percent of illegal crossings from Canada were at the border with New York, Vermont and New Hampshire, known as the Swanton Sector. Migrants are increasingly looking north for pathways to enter the United States.

  • Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his counterparts in Australia and New Zealand issued a statement on Thursday calling for an “immediate humanitarian cease-fire” in Gaza as Israel plans for a ground offensive in the south.

  • Karen Kicak, a Toronto-based TV writer and producer behind the sitcom “Workin’ Moms,” writes about why her first cigarette was her last.

  • “My husband loves new bars of soap, so when I need to replace mine, I take his and give him the new one,” writes Shannon Moise, a Times reader in British Columbia. It’s one of 100 small acts of love compiled by the Well section.

  • A Canadian ship that sank in Lake Superior in 1940 has been found, but researchers are still puzzled by the strange behavior of its captain. And on Prince Edward Island, researchers are investigating the origin of human remains found on a cliffy shoreline that was perilous for ships in the 1800s.

  • Scientists tracked the diets of 20 polar bears in Manitoba by fitting them with collars embedded with cameras to understand how climate change may affect the bears’ survival.

Vjosa Isai is a reporter and researcher for The New York Times in Toronto.

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