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Vancouver: 'Drug Central' of North America

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A drug user talks about life in the Downtown Eastside

By Rajesh Mirchandani
BBC News, Vancouver

As Vancouver prepares to host the Winter Olympics, the city continues to struggle with a vicious drugs war. Dozens have been killed in escalating turf battles that have spread far beyond the city limits. But it is a war that has its roots even further away, in Mexico.

It rains a lot in Vancouver, but this city's ambition will not be dampened. Olympic organisers have spent nearly $2bn (US$1.87bn; £1.2bn) to showcase a confident, modern metropolis to the world.

But barely a mile from the gleaming stadium that will host the opening ceremony, there is another Vancouver no-one is proud of.

The Downtown Eastside is a clump of rundown hotels and liquor stores. It is teeming with pushers, pimps and prostitutes, and home to one of the worst drug problems in North America.

An alley in the Downtown Eastside, Vancouver, Canada (2009)
People use drugs openly in the neighbourhood's alleyways

"Heroin, crack, pot… every type of drug you want, you can get it here," a man tells me.

"Do you have any pills?" a young woman asks, her red hair starting to drip in the rain. She is looking to buy a $1 valium tablet, because she does not have $10 (£6) for heroin.

"Pretty much everything is $10," I am told. "This is Drug Central."

In a dingy alleyway, I met Shirley, smoking crack behind a dumpster.

She told me she was 40 and had been doing drugs since she was 14. She used to sell her body. Now she "shuffles" - ferries around small amounts of drugs for dealers in exchange for money.

She starts to prepare something called a speedball, heroin mixed with cocaine. She tells me she wants me to see the reality of addiction, but it is difficult to watch.

'Middle-class gangsters'

There are many like Shirley in the Downtown Eastside. They are the lowest rung of a vicious food chain.

[The Olympics] scrutiny actually puts more pressure on us to fix these problems sooner rather than later
Gregor Robertson
Vancouver mayor

Dozens have been killed in Vancouver's drug wars. Police say more than 100 gangs carve up a lucrative trade. And it is a problem that extends far beyond the city limits.

An hour to the east, in the lush Fraser Valley, lies Abbotsford, a town that once offered quiet, middle-class suburbia.

Seventeen-year-old Mathea Sturm walks me past her school gates. Five of her schoolmates died in as many months last year, and the town saw a spate of drug-related killings.

"It's still pretty hard to deal with the fact that we've lost a lot of people," she says. "It was a peaceful town, you could walk around at 11 at night… Then, all of a sudden, all this… it was sort of a big pandemic."

Abbotsford's comfortable homes and neat lawns have spawned a peculiarly middle-class breed of gangster.

The police know who and where they are, they just wait for evidence and the right opportunity.

As I drive along with Pc Marcus Senft, he points out a sizeable house in an upscale cul-de-sac, the home of a notorious crime family.

There are bars on the front door and he tells me the SUV in the driveway sports bullet-proof windows.

"Yeah, there's definitely some fear in this neighbourhood," he says.

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On drugs patrol with the Vancouver police

On the outskirts of town, we drive to Zero Avenue, the US border.

"There's no fence," Pc Senft says, "just a big field."

Canada and the US share one of the longest land borders in the world. Here, it consists of a ditch, a few feet separating two countries. It looks easy to jump across.

Within minutes of our arrival, a US border guard drives up.

He said he had spotted us on hidden cameras, but admitted it was impossible to stop everyone - or everything - coming over illegally.

Heroin project

Locally-grown marijuana - called "BC bud" - is smuggled south to the US and Mexico. Cocaine and weapons come north.

Mostly it is hidden in lorries, but it also comes across the fields around Abbotsford and other border towns. This porous frontier has become a frontline.

But the war started far away: the escalation in Canada's violence is a result of a crackdown by Mexican authorities on drug gangs there.

Run-down hotel in the Downtown Eastside area of Vancouver
The Downtown Eastside sits just outside the main business centre

"Everything is global now," says Supt Pat Fogarty, of British Columbia's Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit, which tackles organised crime in the region.

"When the war started, the cartels were too busy fighting the Mexican government... which caused a breakdown in the distribution lines, so people weren't getting their drugs," he says.

"There would be territorial takeovers, rip-offs, a variety of things that caused tension… If you look at the time in which this disruption occurred in Mexico and the disruption that occurred here, you can see the correlation between the two," he adds.

Against this backdrop, Vancouver is sprucing up and preparing to host the world.

The Olympic Games have brought some regeneration funds to the Downtown Eastside, but Mayor Gregor Robertson insists the city authorities are not glossing over their problems.

"We need to solve them," he told me. "And I think that kind of scrutiny actually puts more pressure on us to fix these problems sooner rather than later."

The mayor supports a controversial project in the Downtown Eastside called InSite, the only place in North America where it is legal to inject heroin.

InSite won a legal exemption, allowing the project to operate. On the ground floor they offer free syringes and a nurse to monitor against overdoses; upstairs, a rehab centre for those who want to quit.

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Mark Townsend, the founder of InSite, and Liane, who uses the centre, speak to the BBC

Those running it claim a higher quit-rate than any official programme, and a lower rate of HIV infection through shared needles.

Opponents, and there are many, say it condones drugs use.

It is a highly unusual project in a city known for being progressive. But it is not enough to clean up the Downtown Eastside.

Vancouver's problems will last long after the Olympic spirit has left.



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SEE ALSO
Drug trouble in Canada's paradise
03 Sep 09 |  Americas
Vancouver: Life on the edge
18 Sep 09 |  Americas
Vancouver 2010: Going for Green?
10 Sep 09 |  Americas
'Addict rooms' call to cut deaths
17 Dec 07 |  Scotland
Vancouver's 'dirty little secret'
14 Feb 07 |  Americas

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