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.