'Never been a war on drugs, not even close'


Drugs are still too easy to obtain in Vancouver


Jon Ferry

Photograph by: Graphics, The Province

Vancouver may be the world's third-most-livable city, according to the latest Economist magazine survey, but it sure has one helluva drug problem.

That's not news to those who've come to know the seedy underbelly of our spaced-out port city. It's been like that for years.

So the finding by the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS that buying illegal drugs in downtown Vancouver is as easy as going to the nearest supermarket is no surprise either.

Most younger and older drug users surveyed in the centre's latest, taxpayer-funded study said they could obtain everything from heroin and crack cocaine to crystal meth and pot within minutes — 10 minutes, to be precise.

"Perhaps most concerning is the ready availability of drugs that are injected," noted the researchers, who hail from Vancouver and Boston.

Talk about stating the obvious. The open market for drugs in downtown Vancouver, and the horrific social problems it causes, has been a public concern for years.
The question is what to do about it. And the inference in this study — published in the American Journal on Addictions and based on user responses from 2007 — is that the American-style war on drugs, with its emphasis on drug-law enforcement, has been an abject failure.

Indeed, it's clear the drug policy advocated instead by the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS itself is "harm reduction," focusing on everything from safe-injection sites to drug legalization.
This is, in fact, the politically correct approach that's been in vogue in Vancouver's drug-riddled downtown for years — without apparent effect. And study co-author Dr. Evan Wood, a Vancouver physician, is an eloquent champion of it.

"Despite enormous taxpayer investments in enforcing laws aimed at reducing the supply of illegal drugs, Canada's streets remain awash in heroin and cocaine," he stated recently in the National Post.
"Meanwhile, designer drugs such as ecstasy are becoming more readily available to young people than alcohol and tobacco. The war on drugs, like all expensive government programs, should be subject to scrutiny and a value-for-money audit. However, so far, it has been remarkably exempt from accountability."

It could equally well be argued, however, that the main reason why the illegal drug trade continues to flourish in the Lower Mainland like a foul-smelling weed is not because of too much law enforcement, but too little.

The B.C. justice system is notoriously soft on drugs and drug offenders, as at least one sentencing study has shown.

Just ask former Lower Mainland RCMP officer Chuck Doucette, president of the Drug Prevention Network of Canada: "There's never been a war on drugs in Canada, not even close."

It could also be argued that the laissez-faire attitude of our civic leaders toward the government-funded Downtown Eastside drug ghetto has done as least as much to turn troubled/homeless teens into hard-core addicts as have any overzealous police drug crackdowns.

Besides, as former Downtown Eastside beat cop Al Arsenault pointed out Thursday, Vancouver should not be setting drug policy: "Whatever we're doing here is not working."

Maybe Wood and his research team should be studying those cities around the world where it is.