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Drug users group fights City of Surrey’s ‘discriminatory’ cancellation of business licence

Lawyer hopes favourable court decision would ‘chip away’ at stigma of facilities for drug users
Heroin and cocaine from a safe supply being handed out to drug users by the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, Drug User Liberation Front and Moms Stop the Harm to mark International Overdose Awareness Day, are displayed in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, on Tuesday, August 31, 2021. British Columbia’s chief coroner says at least 1,011 people died from suspected illicit drug overdoses from January to June, the highest death toll recorded in the first six months of a calendar year during the province’s overdose crisis. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

A Surrey group for drug users is hoping a judge rules in its favour after it claims the City of Surrey unfairly cancelled its business licence in 2021.

But the group’s lawyer said this is just one type of hurdle among many that people who use drugs face.

Caitlin Shane, along with Sarah Runyon of Marion and Runyon, is counsel for the BC/Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors (BCYADWS) and its Surrey chapter, the Surrey-Newton Union of Drug Users (SNUDU). Shane was hired after the city cancelled SNUDU’s business licence in March 2021.

The group is also represented by Pivot Legal Society, which works to better protect drug users through law and policy changes.

On Sept. 14, 2021, Pivot filed a petition on behalf of BCYADWS against the City of Surrey and Kim Marosevich, the manager of bylaw enforcement and licensing services.

In an emailed statement, the City of Surrey said “as the matter is still before the Court, the City won’t be commenting.”

On Tuesday (March 29), the Supreme Court of B.C. conducted a judicial review of council’s decision, but Shane said the judge reserved judgment.

“It’s up in the air,” she told the Now-Leader, noting the decision could come as early as next week.

It was back in August of 2020 that BCYADWS applied for, and received, a business licence from the City of Surrey and opened the Surrey chapter, located at 101-13245 72 Ave. SNUDU was formed in 2019.

According to Pivot’s petition, the meeting space “filled a critical gap” in Surrey’s services for people who use drugs.

“For many, it was the only place to meet indoors, rest, use Wi-Fi and technology, access life-saving harm reduction supplies, and host and attend support groups and information sessions,” it stated.

The petition notes that on Aug. 13, 2020 the city’s supervisor for business licensing inquired about the type of business that would be operating there and the association replied it “would be operated as a community service” and “no further information about SNUDU’s operations were requested or required” the city.

Between late October and early November 2020, SNUDU started operating between noon and 4 p.m. Monday to Friday. By February, hours were extended to 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week due to client demand.

“Given SNUDU’s mandate and the population it serves, people who access the Premise do, out of necessity, consume illicit substances. However, drug use is not the reason for the Premise’s existence,” the petition stated.

On March 21, 2021, it continued, a bylaw officer attended the site and served SNUDU with a notice stating the city could not issue a business licence to the association “because of the business operation included a facilitating the consumption of illicit drugs.”

SNUDU was told to cease operations by March 15 and seek approval from provincial health authorities to operate an overdose-prevention site.

On May 10, 2021, city council held a business licence reconsideration hearing at the request of BCYADWS. Shane said council chose to uphold the bylaw manager’s decision.

She said in the 11 months since the hearing, “we were forced to kind of give up hope that we’d get a decision that would allow BC/Yukon and Surrey to reoccupy that space because the original tenancy agreement that they entered into has long-since expired.”

If the judge does rule in their favour, Shane said it “would set a precedent in theory” for other groups to know that if “they do receive a decision from a city that their business licence is being denied they have a right to know why that decision was made.”

“We’re concerned that oftentimes these decisions are being made on a discriminatory basis, they’re not necessarily being denied because there’s something wrong with the site but because of who’s using the site.”

Regardless of the decision, Shane said BCYADWS will continue its advocacy.

“This is just one type of hurdle among many hurdles that people who use drugs face when they’re trying to set up these sites, whether it’s municipalities denying business licences like the case here,” she explained.

“Even if we win in this case, all of those other barriers will still exist, but we’re hoping to kind of chip away at things slowly.”

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Lauren Collins

About the Author: Lauren Collins

I'm a provincial reporter for Black Press Media's national team, after my journalism career took me across B.C. since I was 19 years old.
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