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Richmond, B.C., council votes to back safe consumption site after fractious meetings

Darpan News Desk The Canadian Press, 14 Feb, 2024 04:50 PM
  • Richmond, B.C., council votes to back safe consumption site after fractious meetings

Richmond, B.C., resident Edward Cheung says many community members feel they know exactly what will happen if a supervised safe consumption drug site is established in the city.

Cheung, whose parents live close to a supportive housing complex that opened in 2019, said in an interview on Wednesday that the neighbourhood has dealt with a spike in petty crime since then, and he is worried something similar would happen with a safe consumption site.

"It's the same thing," said Cheung, who attended the Richmond city council meeting held over two days on the issue. 

Council voted 7-2 in favour of exploring the possibility of establishing such a site for people with addictions in the city. 

"OK, people can go and get help that's good for them. How about the neighbours? The main point is, how about you spend money to get education to guys that drugs are not good for them?"

The charged debate surrounding the idea of discussing a supervised drug consumption site with Vancouver Coastal Health touched off heated confrontations on Monday and Tuesday at city hall, where proponents and opponents faced off in yelling matches.

In the end, the motion to support further exploration of such a site was backed by all but two councillors, Chak Au and Alexa Loo.

Mayor Malcolm Brodie said the decision to establish a supervised injection site in the Richmond Hospital precinct is ultimately Vancouver Coastal Health's to make, and Tuesday's vote does not guarantee the idea will ever become a reality.

Brodie called the decision a "difficult situation," but said he decided to support the idea because it will save lives.

"If this came to fruition … more people are going to get treatment," Brodie said just before the vote. "More drugs are going to be tested, and it's going to be done … in a safer way. And in the end, fewer people are going to die."

More than 100 people signed up to speak to the motion over the two days, with many of them opposed to the possibility of a supervised consumption site in response to the escalating number of illicit drug overdose deaths in the province. 

The council meeting was peppered with shouts by some of the attendees of "no drugs" and "shame on you," while several councillors rebuked the protesters' behaviour.

Coun. Kash Heed is one of the council members who initially introduced the idea of a site, and said he understood the opposition from some residents.

However, Heed said establishing such a site would both save the lives of people in vulnerable situations and address the issue of people using drugs in public spaces.

"This is a very passionate subject matter," said Heed, who was British Columbia's public safety minister and solicitor general under a former B.C. Liberal government. 

"There absolutely will be engagement, so your concerns … will be addressed to the best we can. Public safety is paramount," he told those attending the meeting. 

Council issued a statement before the vote to address what it called "a large amount of misinformation and misunderstanding" about the motion.

Au, in opposing the motion, said that he feels opponents of the supervised drug consumption site have been "mislabelled" as misinformed, especially after hearing their presentations at Monday and Tuesday's meeting.

"They're informed, they've done their homework," Au said at the meeting. "They know what they're talking about, and they are not being misled by anybody."

Au also said he is concerned that, by rejecting opponents' call for more public consultation, the city is eroding their trust in the Canadian democratic process and further dividing the community.

"We're just telling them, 'Go home, you're not being listened to. What you're going to tell us is not important.' Once a community is divided, it is very difficult to heal."

Richmond has no supervised consumption sites, which allow people with addictions to administer their own drugs under the watch of qualified health professionals.

Addiction treatment and recovery services are also offered at the sites, although they do not "hand out drugs to users" as described in the City of Richmond's statement.

The issued gained the attention of a number of high-profile politicians, including federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, who posted a video of a confrontation at city hall on the social media platform X, saying it was an attack on a man trying to protect his kids from a drug injection site. 

Richmond RCMP say officers were on-site to keep the peace, and no arrests were made.

Police also said they are aware of a video circulating on social media "in which racist comments can be heard being made," but observations made by officers on-site deemed that no criminal offence was committed.

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