Edmonton would ban public drug use, loitering on transit, panhandling by roads in new bylaw

City bylaw officers can fine people $500 for openly possessing or consuming a controlled substance anywhere in public if council passes a proposed new bylaw during a special meeting Feb. 2

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Edmonton will hand out fines for using drugs in public and panhandling on roads, and expand restrictions targeting homeless encampments, loitering on transit property, and blocking doorways or paths if a new bylaw is approved next month.

City bylaw officers can fine people $500 for openly possessing or consuming a controlled substance anywhere in public if council passes a proposed new bylaw during a special meeting Feb. 2. Consuming drugs on transit was explicitly banned by the city in 2022. Federal and provincial laws already prohibit selling, possessing and producing certain illicit substances.

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“Perceptions of safety was a significant concern expressed by Edmontonians during engagement, and 89 per cent indicated they were extremely or very concerned with visible drug use in public spaces,” states a staff report explaining the draft bylaw proposed by city administrators.

City solicitor Michelle Plouff, speaking to journalists Friday, said the proposed bylaw — created after gathering public feedback — combines rulebooks governing parkland, transit and other public spaces which, because they are separate, create challenges for enforcement.

“This creates a complex overlay, potential conflicts, and requires enforcement officers to adjust their response depending on exactly where a behaviour is occurring. But for the users of public spaces, there is no distinction. They expect all public spaces to be safe, welcoming and vibrant,” she told reporters.

A B.C. court put a halt to a provincewide law banning drug use in public places last month pending a constitutional challenge. Some B.C. municipalities have bylaws banning public consumption of illicit substances.

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Plouff said in an email the city is aware of the ongoing legal action in B.C. and pointed out personal consumption of illicit substances is still illegal in Alberta, while it’s been decriminalized in that province.

“The proposal to regulate visible drug use in public spaces is intended to ensure that public spaces are welcoming and safe for all users,” she wrote, adding the bylaw “will allow officers to address the presence and impact of this behaviour in public spaces without resorting to criminal sanctions.”

Elaine Hyshka, University of Alberta professor and public health researcher, thinks the bylaw is unnecessary because it creates an additional sanction for something already illegal.

If it proceeds, she said enforcement could disproportionately target certain groups and make it more dangerous for people who use drugs. It could also further entrench people in poverty by laying fines they cannot pay, she said.

“What it could do is single out a class of people in the bylaw, increasing stigma against people who use drugs,” she said. “Fearing being fined $500 if they’re caught in possession of drugs … they are going to be more likely to use in concealed areas that will make it harder for them to be discovered if they do have an overdose.”

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“If we really are concerned about public drug consumption in our city we should be doing everything we can to open additional supervised consumption services, including ones that accommodate people who are smoking.”

Last year, Edmonton made a pilot project permanent that allows drinking alcohol in designated areas of public parks.

The bylaw adds a $250 fine for public drinking outside those areas.

Harassment and using loudspeakers or amplifiers is also prohibited. It has fines for not wearing a life-jacket (except on Edmonton Riverboat)) or skating on the North Saskatchewan River, among other changes.

Panhandling not allowed

“Aggressive” panhandling is already banned in Edmonton.

But the new bylaw adds a new offence: “A person must not panhandle within a roadway, on a median between roadways, or on a boulevard adjacent to a roadway.”

Anyone caught doing either can be fined $250.

“Unlike other municipalities, Edmonton does not significantly regulate panhandling, except where the behaviour becomes aggressive,” the staff report states. “Based on the public engagement theme of safety, Bylaw 20700 proposes to continue to regulate aggressive panhandling, and adds an additional restriction against panhandling in or adjacent to a roadway to ensure the safety of those making requests and roadway users.”

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Loitering on transit, blocking doors and paths

Rules for transit were updated in 2022 to disallow “inappropriate” behaviours on transit including “remaining” on transit property while doing activities unrelated to taking the bus or train.

But the new rules more specifically target loitering.

If passed, people who ride buses past the same destination more than once can be fined $250. Staying in a transit station long enough for two trains on the same route to enter and leave the station is “deemed to be a behaviour unrelated to using Edmonton Transit Service,” the draft bylaw states.

Lawyer Chris Wiebe is concerned to see this new development.

As a law student, he researched the impact of Edmonton’s transit loitering bylaw in 2019 and found unhoused people were vastly and disproportionately ticketed. Last year, city data showed Indigenous people were significantly disproportionately represented in those who were ticketed on transit.

“I am disappointed. I had thought (Edmonton) was going to be more innovative and revise the bylaws based on the understanding that regulating poverty and homelessness through bylaw tickets is a bad idea,” he told Postmedia.

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“I am very concerned this will have a big impact on very poor and vulnerable people while not doing anything to fix the core issues people are concerned about, which is people needing to resort to transit stations to meet their basic needs of sheltering from the elements.”

Plouff in an email said both current transit passengers and the updated bylaw focus on the “intended purpose” of the spaces rather than specifically “loitering,” which typically describes behaviours where people “idle or in a place without a purpose.”

“Since transit spaces are intended for those actively accessing transit services to reach a destination, behaviours inconsistent with that intent would be deemed an inappropriate use,” Plouff stated.

The bylaw also has rules more broadly banning behaviours that could be considered loitering — specifically, blocking entrances to buildings or other public spaces.

Engaging in behaviours or actions in public that “interfere with the safety or comfort of others” is not allowed in proposed bylaw, including: standing or otherwise obstructing the entrance to a building or other structure, blocking pedestrians from the intended use of public spaces, and “crowding, jostling, or harassing other public spaces users.”

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Homeless camps

Building any structure on public land without permission — temporary or permanent — is already prohibited in Edmonton.

While the city maintains this update wouldn’t change Edmonton’s encampment response, the bylaw adds new, clear language targetting those who set up tents on public property.

It outlines new rules preventing people from setting up tents and living in them apart from designated campgrounds.

“A person must not establish or occupy a temporary shelter in a public space,” the draft bylaw states. In this case, a temporary shelter means “a tent, lean-to, or other similar temporary structure.”

No loudspeakers

Using a megaphone will be banned in Edmonton public places without a permit if the bylaw is approved. Current rules only regulate the noise level.

If the bylaw passes, people will only be allowed to use an amplification system if they have been granted permission to use a space or have a permit for its use, or if they are used by owners or operators of properties like shopping malls or restaurants playing ambient music.

“Restricting the use of amplification systems can improve the vibrancy of public spaces by ensuring that all users can express themselves equally without excessive noise interfering with the use of the space by others,” the staff report states.

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