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Reactions to public drug injunction mixed as people avoid downtown Courtenay

Museum sees 46 per cent drop in visitors in the past year as fingers pointed at public consumption
The HMCS Alberni Museum and Memorial (HAMM) is located at 625 Cliffe Ave. in Courtenay. Photo supplied. On Dec. 29, B.C.’s Supreme Court blocked new provincial laws against public consumption of illegal substances. Imposing a temporary injunction until March 31, Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson halted the procedures, stating that “irreparable harm will be caused” if these laws come into effect. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward) The HMCS Alberni Museum and Memorial (HAMM) is located at 625 Cliffe Ave. in Courtenay. Photo supplied.

On Dec. 29, B.C.’s Supreme Court blocked new provincial laws against public consumption of illegal substances.

Imposing a temporary injunction until March 31, Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson halted the procedures, stating that “irreparable harm will be caused” if these laws come into effect.

The Restricting Public Consumption of Illegal Substances Act (Bill 34) was passed by the provincial legislature in November, allowing fines and the arrest of people who refuse to comply with the new regulations.

These laws aim to prohibit open-air drug use within six metres of business entrances and bus stops while increasing the radius to 15 metres around playgrounds, pools, parks, beaches, and other public spaces.

The Harm Reduction Nurses Association (HRNA) is the organization responsible for filing a legal challenge in late November to prevent the bill from coming into force.

Corey Ranger, HNRA’s president, welcomed the Supreme Court’s ruling.

“(This) is very important given the gravity and potential harms of this bill coming into force,” said Ranger. “This temporary injunction provides time for the court to assess whether the law that is being proposed violates Charter rights and is outside B.C.’s constitutional jurisdiction.”

He added that the ruling sends the message government has other mechanisms to help drug users and address community concerns than simply doubling down on “punitive approaches.”

According to Ranger, the unregulated drug supply is “more volatile and unpredictable than ever” and “putting this type of law into force” would “push people into more covert use,” thereby increasing the risk of death.

A different perspective

Lewis Bartholomew founder and executive director of the HMCS Alberni Museum and Memorial, along with secretary-treasurer James Derry, both strongly support the enactment of Bill 34.

Located on Cliffe Avenue and 6th Street, metres away from the Connect Centre, the two men said that they would benefit from a ban on the use of drugs within six metres of their business’s entrances.

“We don’t want people shooting up (drugs), overdosing, or dying on our doorstep. That happens every week,” said Derry.

“Another problem for us is that there have been instances where (substance users) have come in and used drugs in the mall’s hallway and left their drug paraphernalia on our window sills or the floor,” added Bartholomew. “This puts us at risk of any kind of contact.”

The two men further added that substance use in the vicinity of the museum impacted their business “tremendously” over time.

“It makes it appear to be a dangerous place to come and visit,” said Bartholomew. “Nobody wants to be stepping over somebody who is doing drugs to come and see a war memorial.”

Bartholomew observed a significant drop in attendance this year, with numbers even worse than those recorded during the pandemic.

“According to our 2023 final year-end report we had 1,119 visitors. This is a 46 per cent decrease from the previous (2022),” he said. “The only thing that’s different (from other years), that we can tangibly put our fingers on (is most likely linked to) the drug problem.”

Due to the current situation, Bartholomew and Derry have observed a growing number of negative online reviews from tourists claiming that ‘it is unsafe to be in this neighbourhood.’

Faced with various financial strains, among other things, the two men are contemplating closing the museum after a decade of existence.

With an annual operating cost of up to $40,000, and sustained solely by the efforts of volunteers, donations, and grants, Bartholomew found himself personally contributing a significant amount of his own money to keep this not-for-profit operation afloat.

Bartholomew mentioned that beyond the museum’s finances, this situation has taken a toll on his physical and mental health.

“A lot of people just drive by and they see the tents, the mess, and the people laying on the street… but they can go back to their home,” said Bartholomew. “They are not the ones on the ground holding an umbrella like I did recently when the people from Connect were trying to revive someone who had overdosed in the pouring rain. We are having to be put into a situation that we didn’t sign up for.”

Since the museum moved from Comox to Courtenay in 2016, Bartholomew has seen an increasing amount of overdoses and deaths from the toxic drug crisis.

Acknowledging the multifaceted nature of the issue, the two men express their desire for the enactment of Bill 34.

“I would like to see more policing… and I would like (the Connect Centre) moved. That would be an immediate relief for us,” said Batholomew. “It was supposed to be a temporary solution and now it’s lingering on. We had absolutely no input (from the City) into what was going into next door.

“But by the same token, those people still need our help, as a community, whether it’s building (supportive) houses or finding a piece of property where everybody can have their tent.”

The mayor’s response

Courtenay Mayor Bob Wells, who already publicly supported the prohibition of substance use in public spaces, welcomed the government’s decision.

RELATED: Wells happy that drug use in parks being phased out by province

“I think that the province has taken a fairly balanced approach,” said Wells. “I fully support… what they are doing and I hope that we can get to a full resolution.”

Understanding the sensitive nature of the situation, Wells wishes to strike the right equilibrium in creating a safe environment for both the community and the substance-using population.

“We totally support decriminalization to address the heartbreaking and preventable deaths caused by the toxic drug crisis, but there is also the need to have protection in place for children and youth. That’s a no-brainer,” added Wells. “We realize that this is a huge challenge, but we want to create these spaces that are going to be safe for (everyone).”

Among the challenges highlighted by Wells is the need to provide the necessary infrastructure for the region’s substance users. As of Jan. 8, the Valley still does not have a safe inhalation site.

“The vast majority of people who are using are (inhaling their drugs) and if there’s no space for that,” said Wells. “We want to make sure that people have a safe space to use (rather than being) pushed out (in the streets and) potentially overdose.”

While the region awaits its first safe inhalation site, Wells reiterated that more enforcement does not equate with a resolution of the current issue.

“(The solution) is not as simple as some are thinking that we can arrest our way out of it,” said Wells. “The RCMP, don’t seem to believe that and medical health professionals don’t seem to believe that. (We have to go about things) with a sense of empathy.”

Ranger claims there is misinformation

According to Ranger, there is a lot of misinformation and misconceptions about what is allowed and what is currently happening.

“There is no evidence that public drug consumption has gone up during B.C.’s decriminalization pilot,” he said.

He also pointed out that areas such as schools, playgrounds and pools were already off-limits prior to the law.

“I would never say or try to tell someone that they are over-reacting or to minimize their concerns, but I would ask folks to consider the fact that we have utilized a law-enforcement, punitive approach to visible poverty, homelessness and drug use for a very long time and the result has been a worsening state (of homelessness and lack of resources).”

The Record reached out to Courtenay’s bylaw manager for comments but did not hear back by press deadline. Additionally, Care-A-Van declined an interview.

- With files from Wolf Depner, Black Press Media