Vancouver, where I live, has one of the world's worst street-drugs problems. I visited Zürich several times during the famous “Needle Park” days, and grew up in Lebanon, where much of the rural economy was hashish-fueled, and went to university in the Seventies (and we all know about that decade), and now here I am in Vancouver, famous not only for that street scene but for exporting mega-quantities of “BC Bud” to our southern neighbor. Drugs seem to have been following me around. You might want to read this even if you're not from Vancouver, because we just might be the future, and you could be dealing with it in your own town pretty soon.

(For the record, I prefer sex & rock & roll, and enjoy herbally-derived enhancement only when derived from grapes and malted barley.)

The Downtown Eastside · In Vancouver we have the “Downtown Eastside”, a neighborhood built in the decades around 1900 and not much maintained or improved since. We all know that there are lots of junkies and crackheads down there, we know that a serial killer was picking off the strung-out hookers, we know that when you drive through you don't want to look too closely. But one time I looked way too closely.

In 1997, a burglar hit our house while we were away (we'd just moved in, we had flimsy doors and no security system) and got lots of stuff, including 225 CDs. Here, “everyone knows” that most burglaries are due to junkies looking to finance their daily need; they love CDs which can be quickly turned to cash at a buck or two a pop. My tastes in music are pretty eclectic, and some of the stuff they got was seriously obscure and irreplaceable. So, I determined, a couple of weeks after the heist, to go and visit the Downtown Eastside pawnshops, to see if there were any smoking guns and maybe combine getting some music back with getting some bad guys busted.

It was a cold day with a steady pounding rain. I visited five pawnshops and found nothing, but after two hours my soul was in shreds. This essay will contain no pictures, you don't want to see pictures of the dying, shooting up in their eye sockets, or nodding out in a downpour leaned up against a cheap Chinese restaurant's garbage, filthy grey scabbed people turning an even worse color in the shadow of their own death.

That was five years ago and they tell me it's gotten much worse since then. Law enforcement? Well, the purity of the dope is higher and the price is lower. The cops blame the courts.

There's a lot of HIV down there, so the dopers are caught between the Scylla of crack, which kills you quick, and the Charybdis of heroin, which makes you too fucked-up and drowsy to worry about keeping the needle clean.

BC Bud · Nobody really knows how big the cannabis industry is here, but it's damn big. At one time it was earnest hippies growing a couple plants in the garage in winter and at the cottage in summer. Now, it's thousands of “grow-ops” all over town, rental properties where nobody lives, but the basement is full of hydroponics, and there's some special engineering been done to steal the power from the electric company, because if you honestly admit to using enough to drive the hydroponics, they're going to come and get you.

The popular wisdom is that the business is a business, not a hobby, that it's dominated by people who are highly organized and really nasty and mostly of Vietnamese background. Don't know any of them myself so that could be folklore. But it is big, big, money.

You have to feel sorry for the American DEA types trying to keep it from coming across the B.C. border, which is 500 miles or so across and mostly wilderness, with lots of convenient back-country roads. How do those guys manage to get out of bed and go to work in the morning? It would drive me to drink.

Warm and Fuzzy Cannabis · At the other end of the pot spectrum are the Marijuana Party, terribly earnest and clean-cut people who talk about the agricultural and textile virtues of hemp and the futility of the law-enforcement efforts, and run a full slate of clean, earnest candidates in every provincial election.

One of the reasons they are so visible is the efforts of one Marc Emery, our own local soft-drugs entrepreneur; that link is worth checking out.

(Speaking about the textile virtues: in Maui last year, my walk-around shorts were falling apart, so we pulled over in the surfer-centric town of Paia and purchased some drop-dead fashionable and extremely comfortable hemp shorts from the local Hemp House. They fell apart in six months; I'll take khaki next time, thanks.)

City Politics · Despite all of the above, Vancouver is by and large a peaceful, beautiful, place to live, the main drawback is that it's a little bit too laid-back and boring. We've had for decades a city government that was essentially a clique of rich friends from a rich neighborhood who kept things quiet and got out of the way. However, they, like most Vancouverites it seemed, really didn't want to think about the Downtown Eastside.

Except, it turned out that people did; last fall, we threw 'em out and elected a remarkably left-wing city council, not because the town's that leftie, but because (a) they weren't a bunch of rich friends from a rich neighborhood, and (b) they promised to take a serious run at the Downtown Eastside.

I voted for them; I just don't see how as a respectable citizen I can sleep soundly at night when there are people a short bus-ride away shooting heroin into their eye sockets with HIV-laden needles. You can put that loss of sleep down to moral discomfort or bourgeois fear of junkie burglars, take it either way.

These people are talking about a “four-pillars” approach, combining traditional enforcement with harm-reduction programs like safe-injection sites and aggressive outreach with detox and get-straight programs. I don't know if I buy into it, but what we were doing before wasn't working, so it's worth a try.

What Have We Learned? · So, what have we learned about drugs over the decades? We sure spend a lot of time and money and passion on the subject, there ought to be some lessons.

Lesson: Drugs Differ · We already treat different drugs differently; alcohol is treated differently from tobacco is treated differently from heroin. This makes all sorts of sense, except for everything that's outside the law is put into one big basket, and that's just silly.

My own personal opinions:

  • As to uppers of all forms (coke/crack/meth, whatever), “speed kills”, just like it did in the sixties. I've had a few druggie friends, and the only ones who died or destroyed their lives on illegal drugs were in this camp, and virtually everyone I've ever known in this camp died or destroyed their life. The only sane strategy is all-fronts attack.

  • Heroin is obviously insanely addictive, but unlike a lot of other drugs, people don't get sick and die just from the heroin - it's from the HIV on the needle, or the life of crime to stay high. A lot of smart people seem to be saying that the sanest thing you can do with junkies is keep them alive and relatively healthy, and then over the years, quite a few of them eventually shake it. So maybe there's something to be said for prescription and supervised-injection in the European style.

  • As for cannabis, just give up. It's just not that damaging (particularly with the modern varieties that reduce the quantity of highly-carcinogenic smoke to nearly nothing), and the notion of a “gateway drug” is just silly, and it's allowing a lot of very evil people to get very rich.

    Legalize it, regulate it, collect the tax dollars, and free up the cops to go after the real problem drugs (see above).

Lesson: Listen to William Burroughs · What actually provoked this essay was a recent local hubbub; the police did a whole bunch of reassignments, put another fifty officers into the Downtown Eastside, and started hassling and busting the junkies and low-level dealers right there where they live.

A lot of people are pretty unimpressed, the courts aren't going to lock these losers up, and if they did it wouldn't help, look at the United States which incarcerates an insanely high proportion of its population for drug offenses and has the same pattern of increasing purity and decreasing price.

The unimpressed people point out (cogently) that this is supposed to be a four-pillar approach, so let's hold off on the wholesale enforcement until we have some of the others pieces in place.

I don't know, I keep thinking about a lesson William Burroughs taught in Naked Lunch, a revolting, depraved, nearly-impossible-to-read book that I can't recommend but I'm glad I read.

Burroughs asks us to consider the narcotics supply chain: the farmer sells to the aggregator, who sells to the importer, who sells to Mr. Big, who sells to Mr. Medium, who sells to the street dealer, who sells to the junkie. The cops have this idea that busting dealers is good, and busting Mr. Medium is better, and busting Mr. Big is terrific, and if we could go and redirect the farmers' energies that would be ideal.

Burroughs points out that the truth is more or less exactly the opposite: every piece of the chain - every piece of the chain - is replaceable, and given the money to be made, will be replaced.

Except the junkie. Make the junkie go away and the money goes away and the chain dries up. So, maybe the Vancouver cops are onto something; let's just make it real hard to be a junkie and try to disrupt the system from the bottom up.

Lesson: Don't Ignore the Problem · Right now, across North America, too many communities are pretending that this is a police problem or an education problem or a legislative problem, and assuming that since we have taxes and we're paying policemen and teachers and judges, we're doing what we have to do.

At the same time, the prison populations are growing, and the prisons themselves are hotbeds of drug education (as in, education on how to get and stay high). At the same time, you probably have a neighborhood in your town where the cops just don't have the energy to bust the dopers, and this is attracting more dopers, and pretty soon you too might get your own Downtown Eastside.

What worries me isn't so much the junkie breaking in (go ahead and try, our house is now a seriously tough nut to crack). It's my little boy who's going to be a teenager in a decade. A decade doesn't seem like very long to get on this problem and start making some progress.


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April 10, 2003
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