FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: BC Supreme Court rules in favour of Harm Reduction Nurses Association, pauses coming into force of BC’s public drug consumption law 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: BC Supreme Court rules in favour of Harm Reduction Nurses Association, pauses coming into force of BC’s public drug consumption law 

xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, sḵwx̱wú7mesh & səlilwətaɬ lands | Vancouver, BC | December 29, 2023 

Today, the BC Supreme Court granted a temporary injunction to the Harm Reduction Nurses Association (HRNA), suspending the coming into force of BC’s Restricting Public Consumption of Illegal Substances Act until March 31, 2024. The court granted the injunction on the grounds that in severely restricting public drug consumption, the Act would cause irreparable harm to people at risk of injury and death amid a public health crisis.  

This temporary injunction provides time for the Court to assess whether the law violates Charter rights and is outside of BC’s constitutional jurisdiction. 

The province passed the Act in November, imposing sweeping restrictions on the decriminalization pilot that launched January 31, 2023, which removes criminal penalties for the possession of small amounts of some illegal drugs. The proposed Act would prohibit drug use in most public spaces. The Harm Reduction Nurses Association, represented by lawyers Caitlin Shane of Pivot Legal Society and DJ Larkin of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition argued this would exacerbate many harms decriminalization aims to reduce through increased interactions with law enforcement, displacement, drug seizures, fines and arrests. 

BC Supreme Court Chief Justice Hinkson agreed, concluding that, “It is apparent that public consumption and consuming drugs in the company of others is oftentimes the safest, healthiest, and/or only available option for an individual, given a dire lack of supervised consumption services, indoor locations to consume drugs, and housing.” 

British Columbia initially launched the decriminalization pilot to reduce police and criminal justice involvement with substance use, in an effort to reduce harm, destigmatize drug use, and prevent fatal overdose in the context of a public health emergency that causes 7 unnecessary deaths each day. Evidence shows enforcement has not reduced drug availability or use, is costly, and is linked to an increased risk of overdose and cycles of homelessness.  

The BC Supreme Court ruling determined that the province’s proposed ban on public drug consumption cannot come into force until at least March 31, 2024, due to the irreparable harm it could cause to people at risk of death or serious injury from the unregulated toxic drug crisis. In his judgement, the Honourable Chief Justice Hinkson concluded, “I am satisfied… that there are serious issues to be tried [and] that irreparable harm will be caused if the Act comes into force.” 

The decision preserves the status quo of the law in BC. The province’s decriminalization pilot project remains in effect, allowing for the possession of small amounts of some drugs. The restrictions to the pilot also remain in effect, including that drug possession remains illegal on the premises of elementary and secondary schools, playgrounds, child-care facilities, around splash pads and skate parks, and for anyone under 18 years old. 

HRNA is a non-profit national organization comprised of nurses who work alongside people at severe risk of overdose and death due to Canada’s toxic unregulated drug supply. “We’re concerned this proposed law would threaten the lives, health, and safety, and Charter rights of our clients, many of whom live in communities that lack safe, indoor locations where drug use is permitted,” said Corey Ranger, HRNA President. “This law would drive our clients into more remote and isolated locations away from services and emergency care.”  The application was filed alongside a Charter challenge to the law, which is likely to be heard in the new year. A statement from HRNA regarding its decision to take legal action is available online.  

Since BC’s decriminalization policy took effect, there has been no documented increase in public drug consumption. Instead, concerns highlighted in government documents released through access to information requests mention recent “media frenzy” driving anti-poverty/anti-homeless sentiment, the spread of misinformation about the decriminalization pilot, and the province’s continued treatment of drug use as a criminal rather than a health matter.  

If brought into force, BC’s law would have authorized displacement, fines, arrest and imprisonment for people who use drugs in public, regardless of the availability of safe, legal spaces to use drugs or people’s housing status.  

“This law cannot be compared to laws restricting alcohol, nicotine or cannabis consumption in public. Because our governments have refused to regulate the drug supply itself, the contents and potency of the drugs are unknown. That is at the core of why so many people are at risk of overdose,” says DJ Larkin, one of HRNA’s lawyers and Executive Director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition. Chief Justice Hinkson’s judgement states, “I accept that the unregulated nature of the illegal drug supply is the predominant cause of increasing death rates in British Columbia.  

“Ultimately, legislation outlining where people can and can’t ingest drugs of any kind likely makes sense,” says Larkin. “But we must start from regulating what is in the drugs, how they are packaged, and who, where and how they are purchased. That would provide the safety that people need.” 

“Today’s decision recognizes that substance use cannot be legislated without scrutiny,” says Caitlin Shane of Pivot Legal Society and one of HRNA’s lawyers. “At a time when nearly 8 people die each day in BC alone due to a toxic unregulated drug supply – and as a 2016 Ministerial Order requiring the establishment of overdose prevention services province-wide remains unfulfilled – it is critical that BC lawmakers be guided by evidence rather than fear.” 


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About Canadian Drug Policy Coalition

Advocating for public health- and human rights-based drug policy grounded in evidence, compassion, and social justice