British Columbia

B.C. to ban drug possession near playgrounds for duration of decriminalization pilot project

The B.C. government says it has received approval from Ottawa to ban the possession of illegal drugs near playgrounds and other areas enjoyed by children during the province’s decriminalization experiment.

As of Monday, police will have the power to enforce drug laws near certain areas enjoyed by children

Playground swings are shown in front of a play structure.
As of Sept. 18, police in B.C. will have the power to enforce drug possession laws within 15 metres of playgrounds, skate parks, wading pools and spray pools. (Julie Plourde/Radio-Canada)

The B.C. government says it has received approval from Ottawa to ban the possession of illegal drugs near playgrounds and other areas used by children for the duration of the province's decriminalization experiment.

The province announced Thursday that the new restrictions will be in effect starting Sept. 18 and will prohibit anyone from possessing illicit drugs within 15 metres of playgrounds, spray pools, wading pools and skate parks.

"We requested this amendment from Health Canada to ensure that families feel safe in their community while continuing to use every tool available to fight the toxic-drug crisis and save lives," B.C. Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jennifer Whiteside said in a news release Thursday.

The province currently has an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act that allows people to possess very small amounts of certain illegal drugs. The pilot project, which is scheduled to last until Jan. 31, 2026, was launched in an attempt to stem the tide of toxic drug deaths across B.C. 

The new amendment to the exemption will allow police to resume enforcement of possession laws in certain areas.

"Everyone, especially children, should feel safe in their communities," federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Ya'ara Saks said. 

"This cannot be forgotten as we continue to work relentlessly to reduce substance use related harms.

In an interview on CBC's The Early Edition on Friday, Whiteside said the idea behind the exemption is to encourage people to go to an overdose prevention site.

"Using in a playground, at a spray park, where kids are present, is not OK," she told host Stephen Quinn.

She said it's important to balance supporting people living with addiction or using drugs with ensuring public spaces are safe for all community members.

Mayors, police applaud change

The move comes after a number of B.C. municipalities asked for greater power to restrict drug use in public spaces.

Just this week, Kamloops city council voted in favour of a sweeping bylaw banning the consumption of illicit substances near parks and along sidewalks.

The mayors of Vancouver, Victoria and Courtenay have all applauded the new restrictions, along with the B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police.

"While the City of Courtenay supports decriminalization to address the heartbreaking and preventable deaths caused by the toxic-drug crisis, there also needs to be protections in place for children and youth," Courtenay Mayor Bob Wells said.

"Our objective in the project of decriminalization was never to promote unfettered public drug use," Whiteside said on Friday. 

"The objective was recognizing that people experience a lot of fear around connecting to support if they're using drugs." 

That fear, she said, includes fear of interacting with police when using drugs "they actually need to use every day in order to get through their lives."

"They're concerned [that] having those seized can force them into situations where it's unsafe for them."

More than 12,000 people in B.C. have died from using toxic drugs since the province declared a public health emergency in 2016. The victims to date have been disproportionately men, Indigenous people and workers from the trades and construction sectors.

The powerful opioid fentanyl has been implicated in the vast majority of these deaths, although benzodiazepenes have been seen in a rapidly rising number of fatal doses.

B.C.'s decriminalization pilot, which began in January, protects drug users from arrest and prosecution if they are found with up to 2.5 grams of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamines or MDMA. The pilot was intended to reduce the stigma around drug use and discourage people from using drugs alone, when they are much more likely to die.

Drug users and their advocates — along with B.C.'s chief coroner — have all criticized the 2.5-gram threshold as far too low to make a difference.

Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jennifer Whiteside speaks on a new amendment to the decriminalization policy that will prohibit the possession of illegal drugs in public spaces frequently used by kids and families.

With files from The Early Edition