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A Tale of Two Drug Cultures:
In the endless mountains of British Columbia, on the Gulf Islands scattered along its Pacific Coast, and in countless basements and greenhouses across the province, British Columbia’s marijuana trade is booming. No one can say with certainty, but US and Canadian officials and industry insiders put the industry’s annual take at $1 to $3 billion annually. Much of the crop is destined for markets in the United States.
Police estimate that there are some 9,000 grow operations in Vancouver alone, with another thousand in Nanaimo, a medium-sized city a ferry ride away on Vancouver Island.
Statements ranking the province’s pot business as its second or third largest, behind only logging and possibly tourism, are both common and uncontested.
Seemingly every town of more than a few thousand people has its own grow store to supply the equipment for sophisticated indoor hydroponic marijuana cultivation. Vancouver alone boasts more than 30 such establishments. By way of comparison, the Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area, with nearly twice the population of greater Vancouver, has one such business.
And the local product has gained a global reputation among connoisseurs as high-THC, high-quality smoke. Some of the seed strains developed there in the last two decades are considered among the most desirable in the world.
Although there is local variation, the province has effectively decriminalized marijuana. It is still legally possible to be arrested for possession, but with establishments such as Vancouver’s Blunt Brothers coffeehouse and the Amsterdam Hemporium in touristy Gastown encouraging customers to light up on the premises, tokers surprised by the police are more likely to hear "sir, could you please roach that joint" than "you’re under arrest, dirtbag."
And compared to US standards, sanctions against marijuana growers are positively genteel. In a study of 112 growers prosecuted in Vancouver in the late 1990s, the Vancouver Sun found that roughly a quarter served no time and paid no fine, about half paid fines of under $1200, and only 14% did any time behind bars at all.
The maximum sentence for marijuana growing is two years, compared to a possible life sentence in US states such as Texas or a mandatory minimum 10-year sentence under US federal guidelines.
But in a stark illustration of prevailing attitudes, last month the British Columbia Court of Appeals slapped down a local judge who had the audacity to actually hand out the 2-year maximum.
The appeals court cut the sentence in half. "They just found it a bit excessive," the defendant’s lawyer explained to the Sun.
The US is not amused. The Customs Service has just unveiled a $5 million border surveillance pilot project called ISIS (Integrated Surveillance and Intelligence System), complete with motion detection sensors and video cameras, along the border south of Vancouver. In July, Senators Slade Gordon and Patty Murray, both from adjoining Washington state, called on the INS to increase staffing on the border.
"Drug smuggling has exploded and last year’s arrest of suspected terrorist Ahmed Ressam illustrates that we must be vigilant at all our northern points-of-entry," they wrote in a letter to INS Commissioner Doris Meissner.
In early August, the INS heeded the call. The agency announced plans to shift 25 agents from California and Nevada to Washington state, according to the Associated Press.
Still, despite a trend toward ever increasing seizure figures on the Canadian border, the amount of BC Bud seized is only a fraction of that seized on the Mexican border. In the year ending in September 1999, the Customs Service reported that its agents seized 20,000 pounds of BC Bud compared to nearly a million pounds of Mexican weed.
The differences reflect higher levels of enforcement on the Mexican border, as well as suggesting a difference in quality between the boutique grade BC Bud and the usually bricked commercial grade Mexican product. The BC weed goes for roughly $3000 a pound on the US side of the border, compared with roughly $800 a pound for the Mexican.
Carey James, Chief Patrol Agent for the Border Patrol in the Vancouver area, reflected official US attitudes when he told a local newspaper, the Aldergrove Star, he hated to be critical but "Canada is too lenient on its growers and smugglers."
The Canadians are cognizant of but not especially impressed by US concerns. Editorializing about marijuana policy, the Toronto Globe and Mail commented, "Outright legalization would cause serious trouble with the United States," and thus recommended decriminalization. "Therefore, Canada should follow its historical nature and take a middle path."
The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police agrees with the Globe and Mail.
And the Vancouver Sun, in a survey done in May, found that 56% of residents agreed that provincial courts should "ignore the Americans and hand out sentences we think are appropriate." An almost identical percentage said possession of marijuana should not be a criminal offense.
Responding to a March State Department report critical of Canadian policies, Justice Robert Metzger was tart and to the point.
"I want to say to them, ‘Don’t talk to me about how to get rid of a drug problem’," he told the Sun. "You hand long sentences and your jails are full of people, but your problem isn’t going away."
Such attitudes please Boris St.-Maurice, a founder of the Marijuana Party, and recent challenger to Canadian Alliance Party national leader Stockwell Day in a parliamentary by-election in the province’s interior Okanagan Valley.
Although St.-Maurice garnered only 1.6% of the vote in the socially conservative area, sometimes called "the Bible Belt," he is optimistic. Not only did his candidacy receive repeated favorable press coverage, "We laid the groundwork to turn this into an election issue," St.-Maurice told DRCNet.
The charming St.-Maurice added, "There are a lot of angry activists, but we just want to sit down and work together. I invited Stockwell Day to come down and he did, he hung around for five minutes. We’re hoping to get an official meeting with him so he’ll be better informed."
But even Day, an Evangelical Christian whose party is perhaps best described as conservative populists hostile to the central government, doesn’t think marijuana possession should result in jail, he told the Vancouver Sun.
In Vancouver’s chic West End, lithe and tanned young women descend from tony apartment buildings to discuss their international seed-selling businesses. Things are booming, they say. They are doing well by marijuana. Life is good.
The Downtown Eastside, only a mile or two away, is a different universe. This neighborhood, once merely a Skid Row, is the center of Vancouver’s burgeoning hard drug scene, one of the most visible on the continent. At its epicenter, the corner of East Main and Hastings (or as some of the pot people derisively refer to, "Pain and Wasting"), throngs of buyers and sellers exchange cash for crack and heroin, the big favorites, night and day.
Heroin users inject in nearby alleyways and recessed doorways, sometimes right on the Main Street sidewalk behind a curtain of friends. Crack smokers in the throes of the pipe light up openly as school children skip by and elderly women from adjoining Chinatown move slowly toward the bank across the street. The faces of passengers on the bus stopped at the corner register curiosity, disgust, indifference as they gaze at geeked-out crack-heads bent at the waist, their heads bobbing, their hands periodically shooting to the sidewalk to examine every tiny bit of trash or piece of gravel in the obsessive, forlorn hope that it would be a lost rock.
They resemble nothing as much as chickens pecking the ground, a compulsive behavior so bizarre and compelling it has shown up in police slang in the US Northwest; its practioners are referred to as "cluckers."
The crack smokers and heroin addicts don’t merely go about their business. They relieve themselves on sidewalks and in alleys, they prostitute themselves on local corners (some 30 of them have "gone missing" in recent years), they burglarize houses, cars, and businesses; and they fall ill from AIDS and Hepatitis C in appalling numbers and die of overdoses in the hundreds.
If the impression from the street is disturbing, the hard numbers are downright frightening. With some 9,000 hard drug users clustered around the Downtown Eastside, overdose deaths have become the leading killer of adults aged 30-49, according to a government report. Deaths have hovered around 300 a year for the last several years. And AIDS/HIV is running rampant, with 47% of injection drug users infected last year and another 9% expected to test positive this year. Injection drug use is now the leading cause of HIV infection in British Columbia. Hepatitis B and C are also running at epidemic levels.
In short, Vancouver’s relatively progressive harm reduction approach to hard drug use is in crisis. Begun as a needle exchange program in 1988 and expanded dramatically in 1995 as conditions worsened, the limited harm reduction model manages to provide minimal services to addicts but has proven unable to reduce disease and overdose rates or to create a decent quality of life in the Downtown Eastside.
Not surprisingly, no one is pleased. Not the Victory Square Merchants Association or the Community Alliance, which represents 113 business and resident groups in adjoining areas and whose politically powerful members have made crystal clear how tired they are of stepping over junkies on their doorsteps. Not the mayor, who has been supportive of harm reduction programs, but who last month imposed a 90-day moratorium on new such facilities.
And not the drug users themselves, or at least their representatives in the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU). The group, which, among other things, runs a needle exchange program under an annual government grant, has emerged as a vociferous advocate for the Downtown Eastside’s drug-addicted population.
Demanding to be heard, they have disrupted press conferences called by the merchants’ groups. They have carried coffins into city hall to dramatize the deaths that they say will result from the mayor’s moratorium. And they have become skilled at using the mass media to get their message across.
Yet even VANDU’s activists are quick to agree that the status quo is intolerable. The group’s Dean Wilson told DRCNet, "I want a society where my children can sit at the bus stop and not having people shooting dope."
But unlike the merchants’ associations, which advocate only the repression of the scene, VANDU and Wilson want to see a better quality of life for everyone, specifically including the area’s hard drug users.
"The merchants just want to see the addicts dead," declared VANDU leader Anne Livingstone.
For Livingstone and Wilson the only solution is to move forward, not back.
"I was an addict for thirty years and have been stabilized on methadone for a year," said Wilson, "and I couldn’t stand another friend overdosing or being taken down by HIV."
"We haven’t gone far enough," Wilson told DRCNet. "Look at Frankfurt. A decade ago they had the same thing, a wide open drug scene with open sales and use. They put together a comprehensive package and have really reduced the problems," said Wilson.
"We have to do the same thing here. What we are proposing is putting a comprehensive strategy in place, but let’s face it — we know we can hardly open one center, let alone a dozen simultaneously," he continued. "But let’s begin with low threshold methadone, where you don’t have to be in treatment, but can just walk in off the street and say ‘I’m sick and need something.’"
"This makes the most marginalized addicts eligible. They did that in Frankfurt with great results," Wilson continued. "Another part of the strategy is for resource centers — they called them crisis centers in Frankfurt — with sanitary facilities and access to information. That’s a way to get addicts involved without coercion."
And, added Livingstone, "Heroin maintenance has to be part of the strategy."
Wilson agreed. "Listen, no matter what we do, some percentage of the population will be addicted. "That incorrigible part of the addict population is probably responsible for half of the criminal and medical problems. It is the sickest, those with the worst habits, who cause the most crime."
For Wilson, the bottom line is simple. "I care about every damned death," he said. "With the status quo, we can only attract about 20% of the addicts. The rest don’t trust anybody. We have to get to those people, and it is going to take a comprehensive program."
As British Columbia embraces decriminalization of marijuana, the danger exists that hard drug users will be further marginalized. VANDU and other public health advocates, including the city and provincial governments, are by no means certain of being able to push public policy in a progressive direction and they could use the support of the marijuana movement.
But the pot people, for the most part, have little to say about the Downtown Eastside, other than that it is a shame.
Anne Livingstone professes some degree of irritation. "I’m a little ticked off at the marijuana people," she says. "They have the support of the Canadian middle class and they’re doing so little with it."
The Marijuana Party’s Boris St.-Maurice says that he is sympathetic, but "we focus on marijuana."
St.-Maurice argues that it may be strategically wiser to keep the issues separate. "I’m glad there are other organizations addressing these other drug issues, but for the moment it is import to keep each group in its area of competence. We should have some advocacy separation."
Still, said St.-Maurice, "I would never want to see marijuana legalized at the cost of increasing the repression against other drug users."