The British Columbia government says it will tighten rules around the use of illicit drugs in public places following criticism that consuming fentanyl in community parks could face fewer restrictions than smoking a cigarette.

Premier David Eby acknowledged the government's decriminalization initiatives, particularly around the public use of drugs, were the subject of concern from municipal governments, law enforcement officials and some citizens.

People in B.C. should feel safe in their public parks and other areas, he said on Thursday.

Possession of small amounts of many illicit drugs was decriminalized in B.C. in January after the federal government issued an exemption to the province in a multipronged effort to try to stem the overdose death toll.

But last month, local politicians passed three resolutions on the decriminalization issue at their annual convention, including asking the government to further regulate the possession and use of illicit drugs in places where children gather.

Eby denied the government's introduction of legislation restricting the use of drugs in some public places was a step back in its decriminalization agenda.

"No, not at all," said Eby at a news conference following the government's tabling in the legislature of its Restricting Public Consumption of Illegal Substances Act.

"The original policy that was put forward was that if you are in possession of illicit drugs and struggling with addiction, we're not going to arrest you, take you to criminal court and put you in jail," he said.

Mike Farnworth, B.C.'s solicitor general and public safety minister, said the restrictions on illicit drug use in public areas would be similar to the province's public smoking and alcohol consumption rules.

B.C. sets out law to restrict use of illicit drugs in many public places. #BCPoli #IllicitDrugs #PublicPlaces

"The smoking restrictions, the distances around them, they're understandable," he said. "They're in place, they make sense and that's how we came to the ultimate decision. The intention of this legislation is compliance rather than enforcement."

Eby said the proposed legislation, developed after consulting with municipal governments and other officials, is a response to help alleviate some public concerns about safety as the province continues with its decriminalization programs.

"The only way this is going to continue is if British Columbians understand they don't have to give up their park," he said. "They don't have to give up their bus stop. They don't have to give up their small business in order for us to treat people with compassion and understanding about their addiction."

Almost 13,000 people have died in B.C. since the government declared a public health emergency in April 2016 due to illicit opioid overdoses.

The legislation, if passed, will ban drug use in public and recreation-focused spaces, including within a six-metre radius of a bus stop or building entrances, including businesses and residential buildings.

Public use of illicit drugs would also be banned at parks, beaches and sports fields, and within 15 metres of playgrounds, spray parks, wading pools and skate parks.

Police could arrest a person who fails to comply with an officer's directions.

Eby said police told the government they didn't have the tools to approach a person using illicit drugs in a public place or to direct them to seek help such as at an overdose prevention site.

"We listened to those concerns and we've taken action," said Eby. "We need a province where people feel secure in their communities. Also, we need our province to be a place that is one of compassion and empathy for people struggling with addiction."

Eby said the province is moving to help people break the cycle of addiction, away from being arrested and going to court, while moving them towards treatment initiatives.

"The majority of British Columbians support government's efforts to do whatever we can to keep people alive until they get into treatment and rebuild their lives," he said.

But it doesn't mean "we need to tolerate public drug use in our communities, especially in areas used by kids, playgrounds, parks," Eby said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 5, 2023.

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