Connecting the Dots on Public Space and Drug Policy 

Every person, regardless of their housing status or relationship to drugs, should be able to access safety. We expect our governments to uphold that, not put people at further risk. But that’s not always what happens.  

Last week, the City of Barrie, Ontario discussed a controversial proposed public space bylaw that would introduce fines ranging from $500 to $100,000 for distributing food, water, clothing, shelter, or other essentials – like harm reduction supplies – to assist people without city authorization. This is not only unbelievably cruel, it’s bad policy: this bylaw punishes people harmed by systems, rather than addressing root causes. It doesn’t solve any problems, just introduces new ones.   

As a national organization working with community groups across Canada, we know this proposed bylaw in Barrie is no anomaly – it’s just one particularly troubling example of law and policy that further endangers people at risk of dying from unregulated drugs, under the guise of public space legislation.    

That’s why last week we filed a report with the United Nations Rapporteurs on Homelessness and Extreme Poverty outlining how laws like Barrie’s proposed bylaw violate human rights and put people at risk. Together with community partners, we’re calling attention to the need for a different path: one that upholds the human rights of all people and advances community health and wellness.   

So, how do public space bylaws relate to drug policy? Let’s connect the dots. In Canada, most public space is regulated through municipal bylaws and other provincial, territorial, or federal land use legislation. These bylaws often criminalize activities related to drug use at the intersection of poverty and homelessness – like using drugs in public space. But the thing is, because our drug laws have made the unregulated market so dangerous, public space may actually be the safest place for people to use drugs, especially in communities that lack supervised consumption services. Being somewhere visible ensures proximity to others and access to emergency health care, outreach services, and harm reduction support. When we criminalize drug use in public space, we don’t solve the problem – we just push it out of sight, and in doing so, make it more dangerous.     

There is a better path. This is a policy problem, and together we can change policy. To build communities where we can all access safety, we need to implement public health and human rights-based drug policy at every level of government. This includes full decriminalization of drug possession, equitable access to safe regulated supply programs, harm reduction equipment and services, and evidence-based, voluntary treatment that aligns with people’s needs and informed consent. It also means ensuring public space bylaws don’t target people who use drugs.   

This UN submission is one step we can take to draw attention to this misguided approach, and support elected officials to enact good policy. As Barrie City Council and municipalities across this country navigate issues of public space, CDPC and our community partners are committed to advocating for the rights and well-being of people who use drugs, their loved ones and their communities – that’s all of us.      

About Canadian Drug Policy Coalition

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