A new report by Human Rights Watch warns that a police crackdown on drug users in Olympic-obsessed Vancouver threatens to put Canada in the same category as countries that feed the AIDS epidemic through repressive drug policing. Here is an excerpted version.
vancouver, british columbia, Canada, a city renowned for the mountains and beaches that have made it a tourist magnet, is the site of what is arguably the worst AIDS epidemic in the developed world. The 10-square-block neighbourhood in the Downtown Eastside is home to about 5,000 injection drug users. HIV prevalence among injection drug users stands at an estimated 30 to 40 per cent, comparable to some of the worst epidemics in developing countries. The HIV-related death rate in the Downtown Eastside was estimated in 2001 to be about 38 times that of the province of British Columbia as a whole. It's estimated that over 90 per cent of the injection drug users in the neighbourhood have contracted hepatitis C.In November 2002, Vancouver elected a mayor and a number of city council members who were affiliated with the so-called Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE), whose platform included support for protecting the rights of drug users and ensuring safe access to sterile syringes and other harm reduction measures, including a safe injection site.
But the city of Vancouver's response to injection drug use since the announcement of its "four pillars" approach - prevention, harm reduction, treatment and law enforcement - has included numerous police crackdowns, some of which have impeded drug users' access to needle exchange services. In June 2002, the sidewalk needle exchange service operated by the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) under the auspices of the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, a government body, was shut down by a police raid.
Needle exchange providers said this was a turning point and signalled a harder line by the police in its "war on drugs."
The police had alleged that illegal activity was being conducted near VANDU's table, but the chief of police later apologized and the sidewalk service was reopened.
A November 2002 report by Pivot Legal Society, a Vancouver-based NGO, published the affidavits of drug users who had experienced what Pivot concluded to be torture and beatings, unreasonable use of force, arbitrary and unlawful arrest, unlawful searches and harassment at the hands of police.
A number of Pivot's witnesses reported severe beating by police officers after they were already in custody and in handcuffs, and several suffered broken bones and teeth. Of the 36 persons who recounted unreasonable force by the police, only eight ever had charges brought against them.
In January 2003, six Vancouver police officers were suspended from duty when they were accused of taking three suspected drug dealers to a parking lot near Stanley Park and beating them severely.
Vancouver is a candidate city for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games; the city is dotted with banners saying, "We support the bid" and "Candidate city 2010." VANDU agreed in March to move its sidewalk needle exchange service from the area outside the Carnegie Centre to a nearby indoor location, a move that coincided with the visit of an International Olympic Committee delegation.
Reportedly spurred in part by the prospect of a safe injection site, the Vancouver police department brought a request to city council on March 27 for a "special enforcement team" for drug-related crimes.
Council refused this request for extra officers for the purpose of a crackdown. The police department, however, went ahead and reallocated 40 officers from other parts of the city. An intensive round of about 90 arrests of alleged drug traffickers followed.
While this dramatic change was welcomed by some business owners in the neighbourhood, providers of health services and some government officials expressed concern that drug users had simply been driven to more "underground" locations and that they were more difficult to reach with life-saving preventive services such as the needle exchange.
Health service providers expressed deep concern that the displacement of drug users and other aspects of the police presence would have disastrous consequences, including fuelling transmission of HIV and hepatitis C from use of contaminated syringes and increasing the risk of overdose and of severe illness from injection or ingestion of poor-quality drugs.
Said Liz James, a nurse in Vancouver's government-funded Street Nurse Program, the police presence has led to a state of "high anxiety and real desperation" among the city's injection drug users: "They're not willing to make contact with us or to engage and get the help they need."
Canadian courts have found that addiction, whether to legal or illegal drugs, may be a form of handicap or disability, on the basis of which individuals may not be discriminated against.
Needle exchange, a proven effective intervention for preventing transmission of HIV and other blood-borne infections among injection drug users, is legal in Canada and in many cases is funded by the government. Yet needle exchange program staff expressed deep concern that they were unable to reach injection drug users to provide sterile syringes.
According to records kept by VANDU's needle exchange program, the service provided users an average of 1,165 syringes a night in the two weeks before the start of the crackdown. In contrast, the totals for the first three days of the crackdown were 773, 816 and 719. "Half the people we normally serve would not exchange because the police were there," said one of VANDU's volunteers.
A particularly dangerous sign, according to needle exchange workers, is that some of the needles being returned to them are coming back taped together with cellophane or black tape or with very dull points from repeated use. "When you see rigs with tape, you know it's bad," said one. "We know people are reusing and trying to pick out the best of the old rigs.'
Numerous public statements by Vancouver police officials since the crackdown have lauded its positive impact. The chief of police, Jamie Graham, told the CBC that he knew "deep down" that clearing the streets of drug users was "just the right thing to do."
But some members of Vancouver city council expressed concern about the dominance of the law enforcement pillar in the city's actions so far. "Policing can't be the solution," said city council member Tim Louis.
National and provincial elected representatives of the Downtown Eastside criticized the crackdown and reiterated their support for strengthening the harm reduction "pillar" of the plan.
MP Libby Davies and Jenny Kwan, the district's representative to the British Columbia provincial assembly, described the police crackdown as "destructive and divisive."
The two legislators called for an inquiry into police conduct.