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Police, Crown draw drug line:

Federal prosecutors to process charges in new crackdown on public substance abuse

BY Gerry Bellett, Vancouver Sun

DATELINE: VANCOUVER

February 22, 2006


VANCOUVER - No other city in North America would tolerate the sort of open drug use seen daily on Vancouver's streets, parks and school grounds, Vancouver police said Tuesday. And they vowed they're going to put a stop to it.

Insp. Bob Rolls, who is in charge of District 2, the northeast section of the city that includes the Downtown Eastside, announced a new enforcement program against public drug use.

He said a crucial agreement has been reached with federal prosecutors to process charges against those who use drugs in public.

Rolls said that over the years, officers have felt helpless to stop open-air drug use in the Downtown Eastside because they had no "tools" to deal with it.

There was no support from the courts, as charges were either not processed or sentences upon conviction offered no deterrence, he said.

"In the past 10 years, charges have been tapering off as there's been recognition that drug abuse was a medical problem and so we have concentrated enforcement on the dealers," he said.

This has led to a sense of "entitlement or empowerment by drug users to openly shoot up or smoke drugs wherever they like," said Rolls.

"There's no other city in North America that would put up with this," he said.

"We don't allow this for consuming alcohol, yet we allow it for cocaine and heroin. This doesn't make sense."

There will be zero tolerance for crack cocaine smoking or intravenous drug injections in public, he said, noting officers have arrested five people since the crackdown began at the end of last week.

Dianne Tobin, president of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), said such enforcement would only drive the activity out of the Downtown Eastside into other areas.

"I feel sorry for the people of Strathcona because the police will drive the problem there. I think it's a waste of money and a waste of time," she said.

"We want to see it [on-street drug use] stopped too and we are trying to do something about it. But if you're homeless and living in an alley, where else are you going to shoot up?

"We're concerned that the police are turning the clock back 10 years and are going to start throwing homeless and marginalized people in jail," she said.

VANDU has already placed signs in various Downtown Eastside locations asking drug users to be discreet and not inject themselves in public, she said.

The organization is also working with health authorities to persuade addicts to bring their used needles to disposal points in alleys or use needle-exchange facilities.

Tobin said lawyers will be made available for any person charged under the crackdown. One of the five already arrested has been given legal counsel, she said.

Rolls said open drug use is affecting the whole community and leading to street disorder.

He said one business in the Downtown Eastside reported a 20-per-cent drop in customers recently and blamed on-street drug users and dealers for frightening people away.

"If you are a drug user and are using drugs in a way that interferes with others in the lawful use or enjoyment of property or are contributing to street disorder you will be charged.

"If you are a drug user or dealer and my officers catch you in a park or school ground, either carrying or using drugs, you will be charged," he said.

Rolls said there is an elementary school, which he did not name, in his district where the janitor begins each day by sweeping the school grounds for used syringes, crack pipes, broken bottles, beer cans, used condoms and human excrement before children arrive.

At Strathcona elementary school, he said, 300 used needles were picked up around the school in a one-month period.

This is unacceptable and must be stopped, he said.

Rolls said that last summer, a woman was with her child in the grounds of an East Hastings community centre when the child picked up a used needle and put it in its mouth.

"The mother stopped breathing and rushed the child to hospital and thankfully the child was okay. The mother said when she takes her children to play in that community centre she always checks the sand at the foot of the slide to see if there's any needles," he said.

Meanwhile, two parents pushing their children on swings in the small park at Commercial and Charles Street Tuesday afternoon said they are all in favour of the police plan.

"Where I used to live, I was always calling the police about people shooting up and this was a contributing factor in why I moved to this part of Commercial," said Greg Treadwell.

"I support the police although I have a mixed reaction because jail is not going to help these people, they need programs and treatment. It's unfortunate it has to be an enforcement issue but perhaps this is a good way to pressure the government to provide proper services," he said.

Adrienne Chin has seen people shooting up in the Broadway and Commercial area and said she "supports the police absolutely."

"It's definitely a good thing. When my child's running around the neighbourhood I want it to be safe. I don't want it picking up needles. The thought of it really creeps me out," she said.

"I've had people sitting on the benches here smoking dope in front of kids here and that upsets me, so anything the police can do to stop it I'll support," she said.

gbellett@png.canwest.com