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The stubborn open air drug market

Globe and Mail Update

VANCOUVER — Vancouver Police have tried repeatedly to close down the open air drug market in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Addicts and their dealers scatter when police arrive but return once the beat cops and patrol cars moves on.

Inspector Chris Beach identified the issues in June 2000, reporting to the Vancouver Police Board on the reputation of the neighbourhood as a source of illegal drugs. He reported back in September 2000 that a crackdown had led to 76 arrests. Four months later, another campaign led to charges of trafficking heroin or cocaine against 128 people.

The open drug market moved from the intersection of Main and Hastings to Oppenheimer Park a few blocks away. Police shifted resources in the fall of 2002, aiming to close down illegal activities in the park “and reduce the level of weapons-related violence at the park due to turf war between drug trafficking groups,” police board minutes state. Police also told the board they would have a presence at Main and Hastings around the clock in order to disrupt the open drug scene.

A new 60-member drug enforcement team made arrests in early 2003 leading to 236 trafficking charges against 162 people. The crackdown led to “a huge difference in the street scene,” police told board members. Pedestrian traffic was close to normal. Elderly and handicapped persons were telling police they now felt safe on the street. Addicts were telling police they felt safer “and there is less temptation and less drug use as a result of fewer drug dealers,” police officer Doug LePard told the board in April, 2003.

Officer Bob Rolls reported in January, 2004 “a continuing reduction” in the open-air injections in the Downtown Eastside. Police announced later that year that saturation policing had brought stability to the neighbourhood and the drug dealers were no longer in Oppenheimer Park. A series of specialized efforts – Project Lucille, Project Raven, Project Haven, Project Hot Rides – tried to consolidate the gains, going after illegal activity at bars, pawn shops, convenience stores and in the skid row hotels.

The drug market re-appeared days after the crackdown, sparking yet another effort to shut down illegal activity at the street corner. Despite years of optimistic reports to the police board, the open air drug market continues to thrive at Hastings and Main.

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With the 2010 Olympics coming to Vancouver, the eyes of the world will be on the city's Downtown Eastside. The millions poured into the neighbourhood seem to have had little impact on its squalor, its people or their problems with addiction. What should be done? Where would you start? How would you fix Canada's slum?


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