COVER

A DEADLY PLAGUE OF DRUGS

CANADIAN DRUG USERS HAVE ACCESS TO MORE NARCOTICS THAN EVER—INCLUDING THE HIGHLY ADDICTIVE CRACK

CHRIS WOOD April 3 1989
COVER

A DEADLY PLAGUE OF DRUGS

CANADIAN DRUG USERS HAVE ACCESS TO MORE NARCOTICS THAN EVER—INCLUDING THE HIGHLY ADDICTIVE CRACK

CHRIS WOOD April 3 1989

It was unusual, but luck favored the police. It happened in Toronto, in a neighborhood of the city’s west end where drug addicts make their furtive purchases in any one of a dozen restaurants and bars. From some major intersections, buyers have only to walk a few feet in any direction to find Asian heroin, Jamaican hashish or Colombian cocaine. It was cocaine, in the initially intensely pleasurable—and almost immediately addictive—form called crack, which, according to informants, was the specialty of a certain West Indian curry house. The deals taking place at the establishment’s handful of tables had frustrated attempts by undercover police to penetrate them. But on Monday, March 20, two ordinary beat patrolmen stepped into the restaurant and found a man cutting a three-inch chunk of dull-white crack into Aspirin-sized pieces—known to addicts as “40 rocks” by their $40 price. “There is a Santa Claus,” said ebullient Metropolitan Toronto drug squad Sgt. Paul Guillemin after police laid charges against a 50-year-old man. On a more sombre note, Guillemin added, “Today, we won.” Never has the urgency of the battle against drugs been more apparent in major Canadian centres.

Cravings: Cheap and devastating, crack cocaine has already transformed parts of some American cities into war zones, leading President George Bush to speculate last week that military intervention may become necessary to end the drug-induced violence (page 50). In Canada, a $210-million national drug strategy is now almost two years old. But so far it has produced little beyond a smattering of billboards, an educational video aimed at schoolchildren, which is not yet complete, and some minor legal reforms. Meanwhile, Canada’s streets are awash with more drugs than ever before. Indeed, cocaine is so plentiful that in most parts of the country its price has plummeted in recent months. Nor is there any shortage of other drugs to meet the cravings of an estimated two million Canadian users seeking escape, however temporary, from the dreary reality of poverty or the high-tensioned pressures of life in the urban fast lane.

Crack, cocaine’s dangerous derivative, has found its biggest market in Toronto, but its use is spreading across the nation. Heroin, too, is readily available—the result, according to police, of new pipelines bringing the drug from India and Turkey into Montreal and from the Golden Triangle of Burma, Thailand and Laos into Vancouver (page 48). Jamaica is one of Canada’s biggest suppliers of marijuana—still the most widely used of illegal drugs according to most estimates—and cannabis oil. Indeed, Canada Customs seized 90 lb. of oil—worth $1.03 million in street sales—aboard an Air Canada jet that arrived in Toronto from that island country on March 18. In the western provinces, the favored drug of street addicts is a combination of the prescription mood-alterers Talwin and Ritalin.

Risks: For authorities, the battle to contain the social and criminal costs of drugs is constant. In recent weeks, police raids have closed down what addicts call “shooting galleries”—apartments where drugs are sold and injected—in Winnipeg and Montreal, and swept dozens of crack traffickers off the sidewalks and out of housing project courtyards in Toronto. But police in most centres say that new drug outlets appear as quickly as old ones are closed.

And although the number of users may no longer be growing—indeed, some recent surveys suggest a declining number of new users—more insidious forms of many drugs pose vastly greater risks for those who do use them. That is particularly true of crack. The drug’s fast-acting effect of intense euphoria is followed within about 15 minutes by a crushing depression—a combination that quickly creates a strong addiction.

In the United States, where inexpensive crack has introduced new levels of violence and lawlessness to many inner-city neighborhoods, proposed remedies range from demands for the death penalty for drug dealers to calls for the relaxation of most laws against drugs. New York City Mayor Edward Koch is among those advocating execution for those convicted of selling drugs. Meanwhile, Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, in a speech to a U.S. congressional committee last September, observed that “criminalization of narcotics, cocaine and marijuana has not solved the problem.” Schmoke called instead for marijuana to be made legal and other drugs to be made available from doctors. In his view, such a move would free addicts from the exploitation of criminals and put an end to the huge profits earned by drug smugglers.

Indeed, there is a precedent for easing some controls on drugs. In the Netherlands, possession of small quantities of marijuana and hashish, while still illegal, has been permitted by government practice for two decades. (The Netherlands continues to enforce strict laws against other drugs.) Despite that liberal attitude, a poll conducted in January showed that the number of Dutch teenagers who had sampled drugs has dropped to four per cent from 14 per cent five years ago.

Misery: But critics of the idea say that easing the prohibition on marijuana would not deter those addicted to heroin and cocaine. Moreover, any move to make hard drugs legally available would run counter to campaigns designed to discourage their use. Noted Joan Marshman, president of Ontario’s Addiction Research Foundation: “If the government were to send a message that we have lost the supply-reduction war, there is every likelihood that there will be people currently deterred by the law who would use these substances.”

Canadian police say that without stronger measures, the violence and misery that accompany the drug trade will become familiar plagues in many Canadian cities as well. “We can beat this,” declared Toronto Metropolitan Police Staff Insp. James Clark. “But right now, we’re losing, and it scares the hell out of me.”

On Canada’s generally quiet city streets, those statements may seem alarmist. But the quiet is deceptive: in alleys and apartments, posh nightclubs and seedy hotels, the drug business is booming, feeding a cycle of escalating crime and personal tragedy. In Halifax, where crack appears to have gained its strongest foothold outside Toronto, youthful dealers operate almost openly in Uniacke Square, a neighborhood of largely public housing in the city’s North End. Since police first detected the arrival of crack in the Nova Scotia capital in 1987, armed robberies and burglaries have nearly doubled. As well, in Montreal, the number of heroin addicts has tripled during the past nine years to at least 15,000. Police officers say that much of that increase can be traced to the availability of comparatively cheap brown heroin from Asia, introduced into the city by expatriate Iranians.

Much the same dismal picture emerges in the rest of the country. In Toronto, the nation’s crack capital, the number of reported break-ins jumped by 11 per cent, and robberies climbed by 23 per cent, between 1987 and 1988, at the same time as the number of crack houses reached an estimated 200 (page 51). In the city’s west end, where drug squads have identified a dozen known gathering spots for traffickers within a few blocks of each other, police divisional Superintendent John Getty said, “If I could get rid of my street drug problem, I could get rid of my other crime problems.” At the same time, the drug influx appears to have brought with it an ominous increase in the power of weapons used by all types of criminals. According to Metropolitan Toronto’s Chief of Police Jack Marks, the number of handguns, shotguns and rifles seized in Toronto increased by close to 50 per cent in the past two years.

Addicts: In Winnipeg, a four-month investigation ended on March 15 with a raid on a North End apartment where police seized more than $10,000 worth of Talwin and Ritalin, and nearly 300 syringes. But those familiar with Winnipeg’s drug scene told Maclean’s that at least half a dozen other shooting galleries remained active in the Manitoba capital. In Saskatchewan, police estimated that more than 75 per cent of robberies and break-ins in the province are committed by addicts seeking money for drugs, while Calgary’s police department last year instituted special patrols of the city’s downtown Eighth Avenue mall in an attempt to combat brawling between rival drug dealers. And in Vancouver, where heroin, cocaine and Talwin-Ritalin compete for addicts’ money, Ald. Jonathan Baker recently declared, “It’s clear we have lost the battle against drugs.”

In Montreal, social worker Dina Mouchoura shares the Park Extension neighborhood with an estimated 20 shooting galleries. “Park Ex,” as the area is known by its residents, “has become one of the biggest drug markets in the city,” said Mouchoura. And in Toronto, Carol Scott, a single mother of three sons who lives in the city’s Jane-Finch area, a focus of the crack trade, described a shocking encounter in the hallway she shares with other residents of a rent-subsidized townhouse. “There was a guy in the alcove with a needle in his arm,” Scott recalled. “I thought, nobody’s children should have to see this.” Parents in Moose Jaw, Sask., were shocked in January when five-year-old Jesse Fedorwick found three used syringes outside the city’s Alexandra elementary school. Analysis by police later showed that one of the needles had been used to inject cocaine.

At the centre of the drug world’s vortex of profiteering, violence and short-lived pleasure are the users. Their money fuels the traffic, and they are its most pathetic victims. “The typical addict thinks, ‘I can handle it,’ ” recovering Ottawa addict Marlene Smith, 36, told Maclean’s. “You can’t.” Smith speaks from experience. The life story she wryly calls her “drugalogue” is a harrowing account of 24 years of addiction to legal and illegal chemicals. Introduced by a friend to the powerful hallucinogenic lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) at her 13th birthday party, Smith was soon selling the drug—concocted in a laboratory at Ottawa’s Carleton University—to schoolmates.

Suicide: A decade later, as a popular bartender for a catering company, she was selling cocaine to affluent Ottawa partygoers. But despite earning up to $400 a night in tips, Smith recalls, “I was always broke” because of her addictive need to inhale so-called lines of powdered cocaine. “I needed a line to get up, a line to go to work,” she recalled. After a failed suicide attempt, Smith sought treatment in January, 1988. Drug-free 14 months later, she now works as a visiting nursing aide.

Jake, an 18-year-old street youth encountered on a Vancouver mall, who requested anonymity, says that he feels no need for treatment. Skinny and pallid, Jake admitted to using cocaine, LSD and Mexican heroin. “I just plan to stay high and trip around,” he told Maclean’s. “Things look a lot more beautiful.” But there is little beauty in the life of Samantha, a 17-year-old Winnipeg prostitute who says that she ran away from a prosperous family to pursue a drug habit that started when she was 13. Now hooked on injections of Talwin and Ritalin—$40 buys what addicts call “a set,” one tablet of each drug—Samantha admits: “You just lose track of the days, and you lose track of the money. Whatever money comes in, I spend on drugs.”

Less visible are the prosperous users for whom cocaine became a status symbol in the early years of the decade. “There is probably more coke in the Mercedeses of Toronto than in the Chevrolets,” said Douglas Grindstaff, president of packaged-goods maker Procter & Gamble Inc. and chairman of the month-old Alliance for a Drug-Free Canada. Added Grindstaff: “You only have to listen to some addicts: traders hitting six lines of coke before the stock exchange opens, doctors who have been hooked on cocaine for years.” Indeed, Marlene Smith said that she once shared cocaine with two Liberal members of Parliament during a party in late 1987 at a private club, patronized by Ottawa’s elite, that occupies a stately red brick mansion just a few blocks from the House of Commons.

Markup: But although heroin, cocaine and other drugs exert a fearful hold on addicted users, therapists say that the malignant potential of crack appears even more terrifying. Indeed, in contrast to the months of use that often precede addiction to heroin or conventional cocaine, doctors say that 75 per cent of those who use crack as few as three times become addicted.

Crack, moreover, is sold at a price that makes it easily affordable even by people who are not well-off. An ounce of cocaine, selling for as little as $1,300 in Toronto at current prices, can be processed into more than 300 crack “rocks,” which in turn could be sold, with a more than 100-per-cent markup, for $10 each. Those prices have already enabled dealers to create massive addictions in many poverty-stricken North American inner cities.

With its low initial price and its grim addictiveness, crack has brought unprecedented misery to the cities where its use is rampant. In Los Angeles, shootouts between rival distributors armed with military-style assault rifles have produced so many casualties that doctors in hospital emergency rooms say they have been forced to revert to M*A*S*H-style battlefield techniques. In Boston and New York City, police say that drugs—notably crack—are involved in one-third of their cities’ murders, as well as a growing number of accidental killings of innocent bystanders. One victim: 12-year-old Darlene Tiffany Moore, who was shot while sitting on a mailbox outside her mother’s Boston home in August, 1988.

Other tragedies have unfolded in New York, where officials say that crack is the main cause of a tripling of drug-related child abuse cases between 1986 and 1988. In one especially revolting case, a woman in the city’s low-income Bronx borough admitted during her January, 1988, trial on charges of rape that she had held her six-year-old daughter down so that several men could rape her. In return, the men supplied the mother with crack.

Rivalry: Crack’s impact in Canada is growing steadily. One indication is the glutted market and falling price of crack’s active ingredient, cocaine. In the past year, street cocaine prices have fallen by 63 per cent in Toronto, to as low as $1,300 for one ounce, and by 40 per cent in Halifax, to roughly $100 for a single gram. “As the price drops and the supply gets larger, the competition for customers gets started,” said Toronto’s Guillemin, who predicts that rivalry between suppliers will quickly turn more violent.

Last October, Montreal police closed four of the estimated 20 shooting galleries in that city’s drug-ridden Park Extension neighborhood. In February, a series of raids in Toronto swept up 225 accused drug dealers, most of whom were charged with selling crack. And later the same month, a joint investigation by U.S. and Canadian police, including RCMP detachments in Vancouver and Calgary, led to 54 arrests in nine cities on both sides of the border and the seizure of 800 lb. of heroin worth $1.19 billion.

Other responses have been less dramatic, but could have more lasting results. For their part, doctors in Saskatchewan have tightened procedures for prescribing Talwin and Ritalin in an effort to keep the drugs out of the hands of addicts. Since new controls went into effect last August, noted Garnet McGinley, director of communications for the province’s College of Physicians, the names of 13 patients have been referred to police with recommendations that drug charges be laid against them. In another development, a new federal law came into effect in Canada at the beginning of the year that allows courts to seize assets that drug traffickers and other criminals have accumulated. For the first time in Canada, the same law also makes it a crime to disguise the source of cash generated by drug sales by circulating the money through legitimate businesses.

Meanwhile, programs aimed at discouraging the curious from turning to drugs in the first place have been launched by governments and private groups. Ottawa’s Alliance for a Drug-Free Canada undertook to raise $1 million from business for a national antidrug campaign by the end of 1989. And a six-month-old Halifax group, Concerned Citizens Against Drugs, is seeking money to pay for drug-free activities for that city’s youth. Both Ontario and British Columbia, meanwhile, have set in motion provincial antidrug campaigns. Data that Ontario’s Addiction Research Foundation is now collecting will reveal by year’s end whether the programs are effective.

Message: But with a wide range of drugs in abundant supply across the country, Canadian police are pressing for stiffer sentences for convicted traffickers and more spending on drug enforcement. One frequently voiced proposal would amend the 90-day-old law that permits the seizure of drug profits in order to direct the millions of dollars likely to be retrieved under the measure back into law enforcement and drug treatment. But, Toronto’s Clark, for one, conceded: “This problem is not going to be solved by police enforcement. Education will solve it, if anything will.”

Meanwhile, social workers, police and ex-addicts agree that it may take a generation for the message to take effect. Until then, drugs will continue to tempt the bored, the unhappy and the reckless or uninformed. The campaign to contain illegal drugs will at best score only partial victories: when one crack-dealing restaurant is closed down, buyers and sellers will find somewhere else to meet. The more important battleground lies beyond the reach of either assault rifles or search warrants, in the decision to abstain from drugs or seek help for an addiction—choices which lie within the conscience of each Canadian.