NPA mayoral candidate Kirk LaPointe has said he will clear drug dealers from the corner of Main and East Hastings streets if he’s elected on November 15.
The open drug market in the Downtown Eastside is a problem that every Vancouver mayor has tried to tackle dating back to Mike Harcourt’s tenure in the early 1980s.
Speaking on November 4 at the unveiling of the NPA’s election platform, LaPointe was scant on details but reiterated his commitment to addressing the issue.
“It’s distressing to see this kind of open drug sale within a few feet of a community centre where a lot of families go,” he said in reference to the Carnegie Community Centre. “After the election, we need to have direction there.”
LaPointe added that he doesn’t intend to target every drug user. “We don’t wish to crack down on those who are vulnerable,” he said. “But we do wish to deal with those who are exploiting the situation.”
The NPA’s election platform doesn’t mention drug dealers in the Downtown Eastside. It does, however, promise that an NPA government at 12th and Cambie would convene a “Street Crime Task Force” that would examine how to reduce "petty crime" in Vancouver neighbourhoods.
The ruling Vision Vancouver party did not make a representative available for an interview by deadline.
Adrienne Smith is Pivot Legal Society’s health and drug-policy advocate. In a telephone interview, she emphasized that it’s common for street-level dealers to use drugs and deal only to feed their addictions.
She said she still has questions regarding what LaPointe would change about VPD drug enforcement. “I’m curious where he thinks he’s going to clear people to,” Smith said.
Smith explained that although LaPointe has called for a “crackdown” on drug dealers around Main and Hastings, he has also said police should not feed a revolving door where dealers are arrested, tie up the courts, and soon after are released to the streets, where they return to selling drugs.
“I feel like politicians who decry a revolving door would like the door to stop and to keep people in jail for longer,” Smith said. “That’s something we are seeing federally with Stephen Harper’s law-and-order agenda: more mandatory-minimum sentences on the books. And we know those are bad public policy; they are expensive and they don’t work.”
Today the corner of Main and Hastings isn’t as crowded with drug dealers as it was a decade ago, but it remains a location well-known for the sale of illicit substances.
Sgt. Randy Fincham clarified the VPD’s strategy for policing in the Downtown Eastside in a telephone interview.
“We focus our enforcement efforts against violent traffickers,” he stated. Fincham explained that drug users who struggle with a mental illness, for example, are designated a low priority. Police instead go after drug dealers who target people with mental-health challenges and other marginalized groups.
When asked if it’s time for police to reassess how they deal with drug dealers, Fincham only said those efforts will continue.
He noted the justice system has implemented changes in the ways it deals with street-level drug dealers.
Fincham pointed to the Drug Treatment Court, which opened in 2001 under NPA mayor Philip Owen, and the Community Court, which was established in 2008 when NPA mayor Sam Sullivan was in office. He said those developments have helped ease traditional courts’ caseloads and also serve as meeting points where mental-health services can complement policing.
“Those provide avenues to have more minor or community-based offences dealt with in a court within the community,” Fincham added.