No easy answers

A young hipster in skinny jeans and a plaid shirt stopped me on West Hastings Street the other day.

“So, when are you gonna start arresting some of the drug dealers out here?” he asked.

It was a bit of a sarcastic comment, so I dished a little of the same back his way.

“Sure,” I said. “You point ’em out to me and I’ll go arrest them.”

We were standing outside the Burns Block, a century-old building and former low-income hotel that was recently converted into 30 “micro-lofts.” It’s part of the so-called gentrification of the Downtown Eastside.

This hipster had apparently just moved into the area, likely wanting to live in Vancouver’s edgiest neighbourhood, but perhaps not quite realizing his front door was just steps away from ground zero in the city’s open-air drug market.

‘They’re everywhere,” he said. “I walk down the street and all I get is people trying to sell me drugs.”

Despite the cheekiness of our initial exchange, I could tell he was genuine. I empathized with his frustration. He felt like the police were not doing enough to deal with the drug problem in the area. Looking around at the mess, I could see his frustration.

For decades, the seedy strip along Hastings Street has been a postcard for poverty. Once it was the commercial centre of a young city. Over time the legitimate businesses were replaced — first by pawnshops and beer parlours,  then by methadone clinics, shady corner stores and run-down rooming houses.

Now, after decades in the dumps, investment is slowly creeping back. Those tired old landmarks are being replaced with market housing, trendy eateries and a whole new population that’s heard about, but has likely never really seen what the Downtown Eastside was all about.

It’s made for a bit of a culture clash.

I’ve had more than a few unsuspecting twenty-somethings flag me down after having their iPhones ripped from their hands while their heads were buried in a text message. For them, it’s a $400 investment down the drain. For the thief who snatched it, it’s something they can sell for $30 and buy some rock.

And like the fellow I was now speaking to on West Hastings, I’ve also had my share of newcomers ask why the police aren’t doing more to arrest the drug dealers who litter the streets.

To understand why, one must first understand how this drug market works.

By and large, drugs are brought to the Downtown Eastside by young, non-addicted males in their 20s. They’re low and mid-level drug dealers, many of whom work for a larger organized crime groups.

I call them predatory drug dealers.

They strut around with hundreds, if not thousands of dollars wadded up in their jeans, while the people they profit from scrounge around from hoot to hoot, and from hit to hit.

I explained this to the young hipster, but it only fed his indignance.

“So why don’t you go arrest them all?” he asked again, not quite understanding.

I’d love to, but it’s not that easy.

Over the years these predatory drug dealers have learned to insulate themselves from the police. They rarely, if ever, actually do the drug dealing. Instead, they bring the drugs to the area, stash them in shady businesses or rooming houses, then “hire” addicts to do their dirty work.

It’s the addicts who take all the risk. They huddle in alcoves and stand in laneways, peddling flaps of heroin and chunks of crack cocaine for $10 or $20 apiece. Meantime, the predator directs traffic, collects the money, imposes arbitrary debts, and metes out beatings when those debts don’t get paid.

So if they’re taking all the risk, why do the addicts do it?

If they’re lucky, the addicted workers will get paid with enough drugs to feed their own habit for the day. If they’re unlucky, the cops will come along, arrest them and take them to jail. And when they get out the next day, it’s almost guaranteed they’ll be forced back to work in order to make up for the drugs and money they lost to the cops.

As a cop, I can walk around all day and do nothing but arrest addicts for flipping $10 rocks or passing a few flaps of heroin. One school of thought says I should, and on many days I tend to agree. But the other school of thought questions what, if anything, that would accomplish.

See, for every crack- or heroin-addicted drug dealer who gets busted and carted off to jail for the night, there’s a handful of others lined up to take their place. It seems like a never-ending cycle.

We arrested a young lady for selling heroin not long ago.  I asked her why she chooses to sell dope. Her answer was hard to argue with.

“I’m an addict. I’d rather sell drugs than sell my body.”

She told me she got paid $80 a day to sell drugs for one of those predatory dealers, and she feared she’d get beaten if she tried to quit. Still, it was better than standing on the street corner and getting into strangers’ cars.

One dealer Dan and I spoke with last week said he wished the police had busted him a long time ago. After 12 years schlepping dope, he’s now so far entrenched — and likely in debt — he doesn’t know if he’ll every get out of the business.

“They have all these programs for drug addicts…all these services to help drug addicts get off the streets. But they don’t have any programs to help drug dealers,” he told me.

I thought he must be joking, but he was dead serious. There is one program, I told him. It’s called jail.

“I wish you guys had put me in jail a long time ago,” the 30-year-old admitted.  “Maybe if I’d been charged a couple of times I would have gotten out of here.”

I wish someone had put him in jail, too. But in reality, it’s not that simple, especially for drug dealers who know how to play the game.

Knowing someone’s a drug dealer and proving it in a court of law are two entirely different things. And because they rarely handle the drugs, gathering enough evidence to lay a charge on these guys takes skill, resources and a whole lot of good timing.

Prosecutors are often reluctant to approve charges against someone who isn’t actually caught with their hand in the cookie jar, and even when charges get approved, convincing a judge to convict can be difficult.

Besides, the Downtown Eastside has been a mess for decades, and so long as there’s unlimited demand for drugs, there’s going to be people there to peddle them. Though I’d love to put these guys in jail, I’m not naive enough to think we can arrest our way out of this epidemic. If that were the case,  it would have been done a long time ago.

I explained all this to the hipster in the skinny jeans, hoping he’d understand that the problem wasn’t so black and white. I told him that the issues here — be it prostitution, poverty, drug dealing or disease — are complex ones with no quick fixes.

In the end he just shrugged his shoulders, cocked his eyebrows and gave me a look of resignation.

“What are you gonna do,” he asked rhetorically, as he turned toward the door of his apartment building.

I didn’t have an answer.

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48 Responses to No easy answers

  1. Andrew K says:

    He should have asked “What can I do to help?”

  2. GregEh says:

    Your answer for the young man could have been “we’re going to maintain the status quo, because drug prohibition and the drug war benefit the police!”

    This post goes so wonderfully far to explain the complexities of the situation but doesn’t make the last step to note that the violence, coercion, pain, and death of the DTES are more a result of prohibition that substances.

  3. Russ says:

    Tell us about some of the complexities that your hinting at. The vast majority of drug use goes not to the entrenched addicts (their numbers are too small – less than 1% of the general population) but mainstream users. I have no desire to make a living that way, regardless of the large profit, neither do you, so I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority don’t want to, and/or aren’t willing to, make money that way. You talked about some of the conditions that leads to street dealing but what leads the average entrenched user to that level of constant use? To ignore one’s better judgement around basic health and self-care? I saw the beat officer’s piece in the Georgia straight about the general population not REALLY caring and his advocating forced or mandated treatment. But even then where do the most recent additions to this lifestyle come from? Are there common backgrounds to this issue? Social indicators? If so what are they and how could we, as a society with more money than sense, intervene to stabilize, improve, lives closer to the front end than the back end.

  4. Rhea says:

    “He should have asked “What can I do to help?””

    But that would have meant thinking about somebody other than himself! Which is the real root of the problem in this area.

    I work in a building in this area; I see the “hipsters” who think that the drug culture and what they like to call “edginess” on the DTES is picturesque until the reality hits them (like in Steve’s example) and they squall about it not being “fair”, and run crying to the same cops that they spend their time putting down. It doesn’t help that most of them have no street smarts whatsoever – I mean, why would you even THINK about flashing your expensive toys around that area, or being so plugged in to your muzak that you can’t hear people around you?

    Everyone knows that it’s bad down here, but nobody seems to have the political will to say “hey, the buck stops here, this has to be fixed, and yes, it will cost $$ to do it right, but suck it up, buttercup, the alternative is worse.” And the public is just fine not to pressure the people who could actually make these changes, because after all, it might cost THEM taxpayer dollars.

    And so people like Steve keep having to do a job that must feel like putting bandaids on an arterial bleed, all the while getting grief from snotty nosed kids who think that it’s cool to criticize the big bad cops until their iPhone is ripped off.

  5. Sam says:

    Really good post.

  6. Matthew says:

    To add to what Rhea posted: I volunteer in the kitchen at the Carnegie Centre at Main & Hastings, where they’ve had to post signs advising people to eat elsewhere if they can afford to. This action, from what I understand, was largely in response to increasing numbers of young hipster-types who seem to think eating at a subsidized neighbourhood kitchen is ‘edgy’ and ‘authentic’. With a limited number of portions available, eating at the Carnegie on a busy day could easily mean you’re depriving someone in need of a hot meal. Yet, despite the signs, I still see people like this eating there all the time.

    I’m certainly not saying all hipsters are like this, and of those who do this kind of thing, I’m sure they just haven’t thought it through. If you know anyone like this, please, set them straight.

    • Steve (not the cop) says:

      Yeah, I see similar things in my neck of the woods.
      When I see it, I go up and ask them what bridge they’re sleeping under tonight, and then let them know that their self-centeredness is neither ‘cool’ nor appreciated.

  7. George says:

    I suppose I’ve lived down here too long. Though some of the walking dead down here can still occasionally cause me to do a double take & I will still make an effort to glare at the dealers, I have zero compassion. Addicts think only of themselves. The addiction wins out over everything. Even an alcoholic parent will steal from their own child to feed their addiction. The DTES is just the final stop on a fatal downward spiral. The plethora of poverty pimps happy with the status quo suck up the taxpayer’s dollar. The many groups from the suburbs making themselves feel good dropping in to hand out food. I don’t live here cause its “edgy”. I moved here cause its the birthplace of the city and is rich in history and architecture. To bad the majority of the citizens of this young city have ignored such a treasure, leaving it to rot. Only just recently is the mainstream starting to realize and restoration is beginning.

    • Steve (not the cop) says:

      Restoration of the buildings and businesses, you mean, right – as opposed to the restoration of the spirits of the troubled human beings who populate the area, and who, I assume, will simply be moved and otherwise dismissed as the ‘pretty’ restoration which will bring financial profit evolves?

  8. Kelly says:

    I happened to be there when the 30 year old drug dealer was explaining his situation. He really did seem genuine when he stated there is no way out for the drug dealers. He said it was the same problem that addicts had but couldn’t grasp the concept that he was the one making 5,000-10,000 $ a month and feeding the addictive poison to the addicts. It was a very naive statement of him to make saying it when the addicts have an addiction to a substance and he just has debts and likes making big money.

  9. erik tenkar says:

    Awesome post from one LEO to another. I faced similar frustrations in the South Bronx in the late 90s. There are no easy answers, and dealing with the symptoms does not cure the disease.

  10. Ricardo says:

    I don’t know if you meant this purposefully but def agree that it’s the “demand” rather than the supply that perpetuates the problem.

    Some people will always want to waste away their lives, it’s hard to blame them for finding the most effective way of doing it. If your life sucks and you can’t see a way to change it, you’ll find a way to avoid it. Even the most benign things can be addicting.

    Of course, the type of cycle that you’ve illustrated keep people entrenched.

  11. Mark says:

    One might ask why people seem so interested in living this “edgy” life in a very poor neighborhood. It’s like some weird badge of honour. It’s as if these hipsters & self proclaimed social advocates feel that living amongst the poor makes them aware or understanding of the cause. Of course none of them will ever suffer through the hell that is addiction (or poverty).

    Years ago, I was listening to an interview with punk rocker Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols on Satellite radio. The interviewer asked Johnny what his opinion of American hip hop music was. One of this comments was how he despised how American rappers always said they wanted to return to the slum. He asked how could anyone want to return to the slum? How could anyone want to return to living in poverty and fear. At the time I was living and working in Detroit, Michigan. Detroit is a place that defines urban decay. I couldn’t imagine anyone that would want to choose a life of poverty & fear (and the fear IS very real there). Using Google Maps, take a trip down West Robinwood Street in Detroit to get an idea (7 years ago this was a normal suburb that was overrun by crack dealers)

    I find these hipsters who move into so called “edgy” neighborhoods absolutely nauseating. They want to experience the edginess of the ‘hood yet the minute the reality hits them they’re upset at the police because they “aren’t doing their job”. It’s the holier than thou attitude they have as if they are special and untouchable to the real reality of drug addiction and poverty. Yet they feel that by living with the destitute it somehow makes them more aware of the problem..and it’s good as long as they’re on the sidelines and it doesn’t personally affect them.

    I don’t know if it’s still happening but I remember a time when you had to buy your drugs from the dealer that controlled your rooming house.

  12. Mick says:

    Reading some of these comments makes me sad. Comments like “want to waste away their lives” and “ignore one’s better judgement around basic health and self-care” makes it sound like these people chose to be addicts.
    Addiction is a disease. Period. You can choose to deny it, but it has been proven by science that it is in fact, a disease.
    Like any other disease, it has symptoms. The symptoms of addiction include greed and yes, often people will sink to lows that seem unimaginable to us that do not suffer from this disease.
    Addiction takes on it’s own life form in those it choses to set up shop in and once it kills that person, it moves on to the next.
    If you ask any of these people if they would have sold their bodies before addiction or stolen from others to buy dope the answer would be no.
    Nobody dreams of growing up to be a junkie or prostitute and putting themselves in harms way to get dope. It’s real easy to critisize while looking down your nose at these people, but remember, but for the Grace of God it could be your child there. Or sister, brother, uncle, mother etc.
    Let’s try having some compassion and if you can’t do that at least don’t be critical. They feel bad enough about who and what they are, they don’t need you judging them too.

    • Helen W says:

      I’m sorry but I must disagree. Pneumonia is a disease; addiction is not. I come from a long and undistinguished line of alcoholics. While some people become addicted to alcohol almost from their first drink, most do not. My family had to work diligently for *years* before they were really addicted. Since I could see that I too shared their predilection for over-drinking, I *decided* to quit drinking. (BTW, I also quit smoking — is that another “disease”?)

      Many alcoholics who have successfully quit drinking attribute their success to finally taking ownership of *their* problem.

      • Mick says:

        Like I said, disagree if you want to, but medical science has proven you are wrong.
        And, because they have quit drinking doesn’t mean they aren’t still addicts.

        • Helen W says:

          Well Mick, all I can say is that I found it *very* difficult to quit smoking, but for years I have had absolutely NO desire to have a cigarette, so I just don’t believe I am still addicted to nicotine.

          • Janice says:

            Don’t compare nicotine to heroin or crack or speed or any of the other street drugs. A whole different ball game!

        • Helen W says:

          Janice, we were talking about addiction in general, not comparing different addictions.

          BTW, how do you know that it is harder to quit taking street drugs than it is to quit smoking? I agree that they don’t have the same affect on the body, but how is that related to the difficulty of quitting?

      • Matthew says:

        If you were able to *decide* to quit drinking one day and it was as simple as that for you, then I’m sorry: you were not addicted. I don’t see how that gives you any authority to sound off on a subject you’ve never experienced. Telling an addict to just ‘take ownership of their problem’ is like telling a schizophrenic to just stop hearing voices in their head. All the thinking and willpower in the world doesn’t change the behaviour, which is why the addict lives in such a constant state of defeat.

        Nevertheless, is it a ‘disease’? Personally, I’ve always felt that’s a bit of a strong term for the medical nature of addiction, and that it could be more accurately described as a form of personality disorder.

        • Helen W says:

          Well gee, how about smoking? I was definitely addicted to nicotine, but I *decided* to quit, and I did.

          OK? Does that count as “experiencing” addiction?

          I never said I was addicted to alcohol; I said I recognized that I had a predilection for over-drinking (you know — I had the “disease”), and *decided* to quit drinking before I was addicted.

          BTW, you accused me of “sounding off” on addiction without the requisite experience; well you seem to be doing just that — so are you an addict or have you been one?

          • Steve (not the cop) says:

            For ‘Helen W’, ‘Matthew’, ‘Mick’, and ‘DC’…
            As you all are interested in the subject of addiction, I suggest you take a look at Gabor Maté’s book ‘In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts – Close Encounters With Addiction’.

            In said book, the author – who is a doctor in the DTES – looks at addiction from both a psychological and a physiological perspective.

      • Janice says:

        Unless you can walk in their shoes, show some compassion.unless you are or were an addict you have no with a drug addict or alcoholic is bad enough, but you still do not know what they go through!!!

        • Helen W says:

          Well, I know what they put other people through. Does that count for anything, or is it only the addict that deserves compassion?

    • DC says:

      With that line of thinking then everything is a disease since everything is a result of biology (unless you are religious and choose to believe in something beyond biology in which case science is right out the window anyway).

      There are absolutely physiological changes that occur in the brain when you become addicted to something heroin. So much so that stopping cold turkey can kill you.

      But what about before that first hit. Does addiction explain the person choosing to take the first hit? Does it absolve them of responsibility for seeking out and taking heroin the first time? The second? Or third?

      It would be like saying that if a person drinks 15 beers and drives drunk then he is not responsible for DUI since his judgment was impaired from alcohol when he got behind the wheel.

      • Mark says:

        @DC @Helen W

        While I don’t believe addiction is a disease, I do believe it’s a symptom of a much larger & far more complex issue.

        Drug use (and later addiction) is the response some folks make to larger issues in their life. Having mentored drug addicts, the story of their journey to addiction almost always includes serious emotional and/or physical trauma at some point in their life. I’ve never met a single addict who came from a normal life with a supportive loving family. Ever.

        I always get a chuckle out of watching the TV show Intervention. The focus is always on the addict and their failures & they never focus on the family (or lack thereof). Of course that doesn’t make for a good drama, does it?

        One thing I can tell you about drug addicts is that almost 100% of addicts had a poor or non existent family structure. Fat kids very often have fat parents. Drug addicts very often had a poor or non existent family life. Get me? Do you see the correlation?

        The armchair critics on this forum are laughable. They have all the answers when their most pressing problem is deciding which pizza to order on a Friday night.

        • Helen W says:

          Mark, I agree with you, although I do know of people who came from loving families that somehow found themselves addicted to drugs. Yes, it is a very complex problem, and I am not trying to minimize it.

          But I just don’t see how calling addiction a disease does anything but hinder real understanding and finding solutions.

  13. Darren says:

    The “hipster” may have an idea; not necessarily a solution, but a solid idea.
    Have the police keep picking up the drug addicted street seller. Every last one that can be found, and off to jail for the day. Don’t even worry about seeking a conviction in court. Just arrest them so the police can confiscate the dope and whatever drug money they have on them, over and over again, and continually. There will have to come a point where it will cut into the bottom line of the larger drug dealer.

    How much inventory can the “hands off” dealer loose before he has to change his business plan?

    In New York it was called the Broken Window Policy. Along with gentrification of the DTES, attack every aspect of anti-social crime in the area; drug dealing, prostitution, graffiti, jay walking, illegal parking, everything.

    Make crime uncomfortable.

    • A says:

      Interesting concept Darren, but when the police are so busy arresting hundreds of people on the DTES every day that they are too busy to manage traffic around an accident, or chase the bank robber or handle a domestic violence situation and the courts are so backlogged dismissing charges against jay walkers, graffiti artists, and people with too many parking tickets they can’t take the time to properly manage even more cases than they already are swamped with and dangerous people are being released back to the community, how much of a good idea do you think this will be?

      • Darren says:

        That’s an interesting point, A.

        This is certainly not my original idea. The “broken window” theory and zero tolerance has been developed and tried in other cities, with success.

        It is as you say, a matter of resource allocation. VPD and the city already have resources dedicated to the DTES. it is simply a matter of how the resources are directed. In the past the locals, and advocacy groups of the DTES wanted a “soft” approach, but as more tax paying voters start to move into the neighborhood I think there will be a demand for a change of strategy towards petty crime.

        As for the courts, your right I don’t wish to see them bogged down with petty cases. But the city and the province seem ready to move to adjudication style processing of minor offences. The city already does this with parking tickets, and they are ready to start adjudication with traffic tickets.

  14. Ron says:

    another great post but despite the fact drug trade on Vancouver’s east side is part of a bigger social proble, when it comes to enforcing the law it Should be black and white.
    I expect the police, prosecution and the courts to do a lot more. You don’t have to be a great detective to spot the real drug dealers standing on lookout, directing customers into the alley, and collecting the money. Sure, they are not harassing local residents who walk by with their kids on the way to the store but it sends a very clear message – Vancouver’s east side is a lawless zone.

  15. Stinky says:

    I have a problem with the term “hipster,” which like a lot of other terms has the effect of grouping individuals to make it easier to disparage them in aggregate. So I wish people, including the post author, wouldn’t use it. There is nothing wrong with being an educated urban young person with an interest in popular culture, which is what we are really talking about when we talk about hipsters. We could use more of them.

    This is a story about a young person being open about not understanding the status quo, and a seasoned public servant taking the time to explain the complexities of the situation. What’s not to love? Not a single one of us sprang full-formed from the head of Zeus knowing this stuff, and I have yet to meet anybody that has a complete understanding of how to fix it. Thankfully there are still people trying to figure it out, even if some of us have a great distance to travel on that road.

    As for addiction, I personally am grateful to fate that I didn’t fall down that hole. Any of us could have, and some of us have. If recognizing that as pure luck and having a little compassion moves somebody from Kerrisdale or West Point Grey to undertake a little outreach action, why is that contemptible?

  16. Mark says:

    I think we all need to recognize that the DTES is the ‘last stop’ for the addicted & destitute. A couple I know have a daughter who is an addict. She lives with them & they do their best to take care of her (as best you can with an addict). They do not live in BC. Their greatest fear is that their daughter will take off one day and end up in the DTES. In their words “one she gets there, she will be gone, it will be too late”.

    I believe the above is a fair statement. All cities have an underbelly but, in Canada, the DTES holds the gold medal. It’s the last stop for the destitute & a magnet for those that take advantage of them. Add in that BC is relatively warm in winter (by Canadian standards).

    The question was “why don’t you just arrest these dealers”. A question like that shows how naive this “hipster” actually was. The drug trade is worldwide. It’s an industry that produces billions, if not trillions of dollars. There are governments, military and police forces that defend & profit off the drug trade. Thinking you can fix the problem simply by arresting some thug on the corner is akin to thinking you can shut down the Hell’s Angels by giving Larry Amero a fine for public intoxication.

  17. Gary Cameron says:

    You can call addiction whatever you like, but in fact the difference between addiction and most diseases is that an addict can become a non-addict simply by making a decision to quit. Doesn’t work that way with, say, cancer.

    As far as turning the police loose to arrest/harass/incarcerate traffickers without worrying about niggling concerns like evidence, the charter, promises to appear, charge approvals, prosecutors and judges, it sure as hell sounds like a plan to me! However, civil libertarians, defense lawyers and mainstream media progressives would have a field day, and the resulting law suits would soon bankrupt the city. Not gonna happen.

    The latest Georgia Straight has an article that might be of interest:

    • Matthew says:

      Not exactly. Yes, the addict can quit, after which they will no longer need that substance on a day-to-day basis. But as any addict who has relapsed can tell you, once you pick up that drink/pipe/rig/whatever again, you will very quickly find yourself right back where you were. The addict’s thinking is warped by the substance such that taking more becomes the only realistic option. Non-addicts often speak of ‘choice’ and ‘willpower’, but the reality is, when you’re an addict the only choice you become aware of is to use or to use a lot. The addict’s thinking is narrowed to that small range of possibilities and anything else feels like complete fantasy. That’s why some consider it a disease: the addict is affected by the substance in a way that non-addicts aren’t. Kind of like how a person with diabetes responds to glucose differently than other people.

      In short, the tendency towards addictive behaviour *never* goes away. To continue your cancer analogy, it goes into remission.

      • Gary Cameron says:

        “In short, the tendency towards addictive behaviour *never* goes away. To continue your cancer analogy, it goes into remission.”

        While that may be true, it still inevitably comes down to the addict making that basic decision not to be an addict. Explanations, excuses and justifications for addiction are irrelevant. There is no logical argument, no treatment and no magic pill that can cure addiction, because no addict who hasn’t made the decision to quit will ever become a non-addict, for lack of a better term. That, BTW, is why forcing addicts into rehab is probably a waste of limited resources.

        • Helen W says:

          Well actually, I was definitely addicted to nicotine but eventually quit smoking. That was decades ago, and I can honestly say that I have exactly NO desire to ever smoke another cigarette, quite the opposite in fact. So at least in my case with smoking, I have become a non-addict.

          • Mick says:

            Removing the desire to “use” in any form, be it nicotine, alcohol or whatever/however the DISEASE of addiction manifests itself in you by abstaining does not mean you are no longer an addict. If you were to smoke just one cigarette, I can guarantee you would want another and another and another until you are a full time smoker once again.
            That is why the disease of addiction is referred to as “Cunning, baffling & powerful”. Often, people will quit drugs, only to increase alcohol intake or take up gambling, shopping etc. The thrill is still there, the release of endorphins into the brain is the same.
            Ask any recovering addict, they will tell you, there is no cure.

    • Steve (not the cop) says:

      Interesting article.

      I particularly like the last paragraph:
      “He even suggested that society is “complicit” about the cycle of addiction in the Downtown Eastside. “We have a guilty conscience,” he said. “Why do you think so many people come down here during Christmas to give out sandwiches to all the poor homeless? They’re not making their lives any better, but they’re making themselves feel better. So who are you helping? You or them?””
      ^ Absolutely. I’ve been saying for years that the ‘donation industry’ relies upon people giving $50 or $100 to their favourite charity at Xmas, and feeling good about themselves all year long. Though the money surely helps, the reason behind the giving is hardly a selfless act.

      As far as the subject of forcing addicts into treatment… where I work (which is the ‘down and out’ part of a large Canadian city – admittedly not as extreme as the DTES – but then nowhere is)… where I work, there is a young woman in her early 20s who has some significant psychological problems. She has gone substantially down hill in the past year. She is using all sorts of drugs, most often, crack. She is frequently seen these days with her pants around her knees, and no underwear on. She eats little. At this point, even some of the people who sell her drugs are concerned about her well-being.
      She can give me a hug and thank me for caring about her one day, and send me to hell the next day, though we’ve had no interaction in between these two encounters. I never know what I’ll get from her.

      If I had the ability to force her into a treatment centre, against her will, I would. I feel that this is the only thing that will save her life. She will not go to treatment voluntarily. Without treatment, I am quite confident that she will be dead inside of 6 months. I do not have the capacity to force her into treatment, and so I’ve gone to a couple of entities who may possess that ‘power’ to a degree. I have spoken with them about her, and told them how utterly desperate the circumstance is. But nothing has been done.

      Part of the ‘harm reduction’ approach is unfortunately that addicts have the ‘right’ to do whatever they choose to do with their lives. Sort of a ‘who are we to impose our values on them?’ attitude.
      Well, it’s all fine and good to respect people’s ‘rights’ – but when these people are profoundly and perpetually miserable; when they themselves see no light at the end of the tunnel; when their lifestyles are a clear and obvious threat to their own lives… then I feel that stepping in in an extreme manner to prevent their death is certainly justifiable.

  18. Mark says:

    With regards to those saying addicts make the “choice” of becoming an addict I thought I’d share something.

    Years back, I decided to change careers & in order to afford to live & go to school I moved to a sketchy area of the downtown (not Vancouver)

    I woke up very early one Saturday to go into work & catch up. Not being able to afford a car, I set out to walk to the bus stop. For a reason I don’t understand, I chose to walk down a different route to get to the bus stop. I remember being incredibly surprised at this very young (13ish) girl approaching me in a black shirt which had a well known fashion logo on it (one that doesn’t come cheap). The girl approached me in an awkward fashion finally approaching me & asking if I could lend her money. I stood there registering this in my mind; a teen girl in a $90 dollar shirt did not belong here. Just as I was thinking she said awkwardly offered me sexual favours if I would give her money.

    Obviously, I declined the offer, but I did tell her I’d buy her something to eat. My bus stop just happened to be in front of a old greasy diner. I took the young girl inside & let her order. She ordered this giant trucker breakfast which came on two plates. While we were eating (her wolfing down the food and remember this is a teen girl) I tried to find out why she was there. She just said that she wasn’t going home ever again. When I asked why should would only say that she didn’t like her Dad and she wasn’t going home..that should would sooner be dead. It was clear this was NOT some fabricated drama from this girl.

    After the food settled I think it helped settle her down and I finally convinced her that she needed to be somewhere safe. The area in question was that cities “low track”, filled with street walkers, hustlers & predators. My own roomie, a female, had been harassed just walking up the street. The girl agreed to come with me & as I had no phone, I explained the situation to the bus driver. He was great. He radioed this in to his dispatch & as luck would have it, a shelter for women was near the bus station. A woman from the shelter along with a female cop met us at the station. I don’t know where they took the young girl only that she was willing to go as long as “she didn’t have to see her Dad ever again”. She came and gave me a hug and I said “don’t worry, it’s all gonna be cool”.

    I don’t know what happened to that kid. But I wouldn’t call what put her in that alley “a choice”. And what if she had of been found by a popcorn pimp & forced to work the block selling her body? If she found escape in hard drugs would that be a “choice”.

    I went back to the shelter a few days later just to see if the kid was OK. Of course, the women could tell me nothing because of privacy laws. But she made a comment that really hit me & one I won’t forget. The girl had trusted and gone with me because “I was cute and looked like Nick from the Backstreet Boys”. That comment made me realize how innocent that kid was.

    • Steve (not the cop) says:

      Not only how innocent she was, but how utterly vulnerable, as well… Scary stuff.

      I’ve found myself in similar circumstances, and I always end up telling the young person something along the lines of “Look, you shouldn’t have trusted me so easily. It worked out this time because I’m not here to hurt you, but you don’t yet possess the insight or experience to know who to trust and who not to. And out here, there are a lot of bad people who will be ‘nice’ to you, and once you trust them, they’ll hurt you. Please be very careful in the future.”

      It’s a very delicate thing… on the one hand, you’re thankful that they trusted you and allowed you to help them. But on the other hand, they can easily trust the wrong person, and that’s how disasters happen.

      Good work, Mark.

  19. Mary says:

    I so agree with you about nicotine addiction. It’s 10 years since I stopped smoking, but I know that although I seldom think about smoking now, all I would need to do is “have just 1” and I would likely be looking forward to the next “just 1”.

    • Helen W says:

      Mary, I used to think the same thing. When I was young and living in Montreal, we’d go to jazz bars where the air was literally blue with cigarette smoke. Now, when I am in a room with far less cigarette smoke, I start to become nauseated. I suspect if I did “have just 1” cigarette, I would be unable to even finish it.

      Maybe there are also changes in our brains that prevent us from getting hooked again.

  20. Jay says:

    DC I have to agree with you regarding your comments on making choices and the first hit. At that moment in time the buck stops with the potential user. This is the time to stop and think about the choices you are about to make.
    I also don’t see what difference it makes if you look at a seasoned user and call his drug use a problem, an addiction or a disease as the result is still the same.

  21. Raingurl says:

    Your post made me sad. Some of the comments made me angry and some made me sad again………….The people that judge a drug addict before ever being one themselves should think before they speak. You only see what’s on the outside of a drug addict but you will NEVER know what is going on inside. It’s a silent war raging and always nagging. I visit the DTES for a few different reasons. One of them is to see what COULD happen if I don’t win the war………..

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