When Harry Bains woke up on April 19, his reaction to news of a police incident earlier that morning was poignantly blasé. “Another day another shooting”, reads a message he posted on Twitter.
Hours later, the NDP MLA for Surrey-Newton learned the victim of that fatal attack was his 22-year-old nephew, Arun.
“We need to have enough resources for police,” Bains said in a telephone interview. More boots on the ground is a call that Surrey politicians have made for more than a decade. Bains emphasized it still needs to be answered, but he also said the time has come for new ideas.
“The war on drugs has been the mantra of the federal government for how long now?” Bains asked. “And it is not working for Surrey.”
Since March 9, there have been 30 shootings in Surrey and North Delta in what the RCMP describe as a “street level” drug feud. The cyclical nature of such violence has former B.C. law-enforcement officials echoing Bains’s call for a change. Drawing on decades of experience, and pointing to specific examples where a police action has spurred conflict as opposed to stopping it, these retired officers are calling for no less than an end to the drug war.
Kash Heed is a former B.C. solicitor general and was once the commanding officer of the Vancouver Police Department’s drug squad. He told the Georgia Straight that the context for the recent shootings in Surrey is prohibition.
“When I was involved in this conflict in my policing years, we tracked it back to what the attraction was,” Heed recounted. “The attraction was the fact that they make easy money through the distribution and sale of drugs.”
Police drug busts spark violence
Heed recalled Project Elderly and Project Torpedo, two VPD operations conducted in the early 2000s wherein hundreds of street-level dealers were removed from the Downtown Eastside. The result?
“There was still a market for the drugs,” Heed said. “And that void was filled by up-and-comers who were trying to make a name for themselves. We could correlate that with an increase in violence in the area, and that was due to new people coming in, trying to flex their muscles, trying to show that they were the new boys in town.”
Heed reported finding further evidence of police actions leading to gang violence while working on his graduate degree. He examined data on some 600 Vancouver drug dealers arrested between June 2001 and October 2002. His findings: “A consistent pattern,” Heed said. “The void was filled and, often, violence increased because you had new players coming into the game.”
Heed observed that there were two major VPD drug busts that preceded the ongoing spike in Surrey shootings.
On February 17, police executed Project Tainted against targets in Vancouver, Burnaby, and North Vancouver. According to a March 3 media release, the result was eight arrests and roughly $1 million in drugs taken off the streets. Then on March 11, in an action titled Project Trooper, the VPD and RCMP moved on locations in Vancouver, Surrey, New Westminster, Coquitlam, and Maple Ridge. According to an April 1 release, that resulted in 11 arrests and the seizure of $1.8 million worth of narcotics.
Heed said the timing of those operations could be significant. “Would I be surprised if that is what has happened?” he asked. “No. Because that is just the way drug markets operate. And then you combine that with gang activity and, yes, there is going to be violence.”
John Anderson is a former correctional officer from Surrey who is now a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. He pointed to another study that supports Heed’s research with a much larger data sample.
The 2011 paper, authored by academics with UBC and the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and published in the International Journal of Drug Policy, reviewed 15 studies that examined law-enforcement agencies’ effects on gang violence. It found that 14 of them recorded an “adverse impact”; of those, 10 showed a “significant association between drug law enforcement and drug market violence”.
The researchers’ conclusion: “The existing evidence base suggests that gun violence and high homicide rates may be an inevitable consequence of drug prohibition and that disrupting drug markets can paradoxically increase violence.”
(This relationship was identified early in the U.S. “war on drugs”. Related to what’s known as the “kingpin strategy”, it was confirmed in 1994 when a Pentagon analyst named Rex Rivolo crunched the numbers and found the DEA’s elimination of high-level dealers was actually increasing the supply of cocaine to America. The kingpin phenomenon has attracted renewed attention as it pertains to the Obama administration’s preference to combat terrorism with targeted assassinations.)
Anderson described this effect as predictable. “Whenever the police do a crackdown, there is a surge in violence as other groups try to fill the vacuum,” he said.
Tracking cause and effect
In a telephone interview, Surrey RCMP Sgt. Dale Carr described possible links between the VPD busts and the Surrey shootings as “without basis and purely speculation”.
He maintained that the recent spate of shootings is different from gang violence Surrey experienced through the late 2000s in that it does not involve more organized enterprises such as the Hells Angels or the Red Scorpions.
“These dealers want to control more of an area and do not want another group coming in,” Carr said. “Or it could be that one group wants to take over an area that is currently very active.”
Const. Brian Montague, a VPD spokesperson, said drug-market violence is a difficult phenomenon to track. “There is always someone willing to take someone else’s place,” he conceded. “I think when you look at the sheer volume of these seizures, they are going to have an impact. But what that impact is is hard to measure.”
A massive failure
Mike Harcourt served as B.C. premier from 1991 to 1996 and prior to that was the mayor of Vancouver. In a telephone interview, he said it was his experience that you can’t stop the flow of drugs with law enforcement.
Harcourt recalled former VPD chief Bob Stewart (who retired in 1991) informing him it was the department’s official estimate that it was catching less than five percent of the drugs bound for Vancouver streets. "And the people who were actually on the drug squad, they told me it was actually about two percent," Harcourt added.
He said where you do see the effects of prohibition are in ever-rising prison populations and gang violence in cities like Surrey.
“There is pretty overwhelming evidence that the war on drugs—and particularly on marijuana—is a massive failure with huge and terrible consequences for millions of people in the States and hundreds of thousands of people here in Canada,” Harcourt said.
Russ Hiebert and Nina Grewal, Conservative MPs for Surrey ridings where recent shootings have taken place, both declined to do interviews.
Speaking in the House of Commons on April 28, Grewal emphasized that the Conservatives have passed tough-on-crime legislation, and criticized the federal Liberals’ plan to legalize marijuana. “The Liberals’ solution to drug-fuelled gang warfare is to make marijuana easier for our children to buy and smoke,” claimed the MP for Fleetwood-Port Kells.
Time to talk about marijuana
Surrey First city councillor Bruce Hayne told the Straight B.C. Justice Minister Suzanne Anton has pledged to fast-track the delivery of 100 new RCMP officers in addition to 34 who arrived in April. But he conceded that a pattern exists where the elimination of one drug dealer sparks violence that ends with new drug dealers taking their place.
“There is certainly a correlation between the current legal framework surrounding illicit drugs and the kinds of violence that people are prepared to go to in order to protect their profits,” he said.
Asked if it’s time to end the prohibition of softer drugs like marijuana, Hayne replied: “That conversation needs to take place.”
Donald MacPherson, executive director for the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, said there is still a long way to go.
“The nut that we haven’t been able to crack is to convince people that the harms of drug prohibition are greater than the harms of the drugs themselves,” he said. “We fear people becoming involved with substances and developing problems so much that we are willing to keep in place a system that is not working, that feeds organized crime, that feeds violence, and that ends up with a lot of young men in the Lower Mainland killed. It is a cycle that we have seen over and over again. And we refuse to entertain any other strategies.”