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Why Are U.S. Drug Cops in Vancouver?

Despite slams from a Supreme Court judge and civil liberties advocates, America’s DEA calls B.C. home.

Alisa Smith 27 Oct
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[Second of a two-part series.]

Strange but true: the American Secret Service in Vancouver is listed in the phonebook, but the Drug Enforcement Administration is not. This seems to be a measure of just how secretive the DEA is. They opened shop quietly in Vancouver last year, but the public has little idea of what they are doing—let alone that they are here—and the DEA would like to keep it that way.

“How did you get my phone number?” is the first thing Vancouver DEA agent Kenneth Peterson asks in a booming voice. If it’s classified, he’d best notify his counterparts at the DEA office in Seattle, as they gave it to me.

He sidesteps nearly all my questions, praising the beauty of the city instead. The only information he would divulge is that the DEA has three people here—and that others are “in and out”—and they came to town in June 2003. “Vancouver does have some drug problems, otherwise we wouldn’t be here,” he says. How many operations they have been involved in, he would not say. He would not give his opinion on Vancouver’s drug policy or its safe injection site. “I can only stick to facts,” he says. “It’s like asking someone from the Marijuana Party to give their opinion on the DEA. It’s very slanted.” He pauses. “Not to say that we’re slanted.”

Former mayor had no idea

Even Vancouverites who are close watchers of the war on drugs are shocked to hear that the DEA is on the scene. Former mayor Philip Owen, one of the province’s most prominent drug-policy activists, had no idea until informed by The Tyee. “I want to go knock on their door and say, ‘What are you doing here?’” he exclaims.

Other sources can help fill in the picture. In 2001, the U.S. Embassy spokesman in Ottawa, Bud Shinkman, said Vancouver needed an office because of its booming marijuana industry. In April 2002, then-DEA head Asa Hutchinson spoke in front of the House Committee on International Relations, trying to reconfigure the war on drugs as a war on terror in the wake of 9/11, and used the term “narco-terrorism” to characterize the money flow. At the same time, he asked for an additional $35.6 million to fight heroin trafficking, to be partly directed to the Southeast Asian trade. He wanted new DEA offices in Kunming, China, and in Vancouver, as most Southeast Asian heroin going to the U.S. enters, he said, via Chinese freighter to Vancouver.

Both the U.S. and Canadian governments said yes. That brought the DEA to a total of 80 foreign field offices, including one already in Ottawa, in 58 countries. On the agency’s website , the Canadian offices are lumped in the Europe/Middle East/Africa section. Oddly, in the list of field office phone numbers, only Peshawar, Tashkent, Kabul and Vancouver are left blank.

Treaty promotes joint operations

We shouldn’t worry about the DEA, says Vancouver mayor Larry Campbell, a former RCMP officer. “Even before they had an office here, we did joint operations with them.” Since 1990, a mutual legal assistance treaty between Canada and the U.S. has allowed officers of each country to share databases and other information to fight cross-border crime.

However, critics argue that, now that the DEA has a permanent base in Vancouver, they will influence the types of investigations undertaken with offers of money and agents to support their pet projects. For instance, the DEA website names “Marijuana Eradication” a major program area. On the other hand, B.C. has by far the lowest rate in Canada of criminal charges compared to police-noted incidents of marijuana possession, at 17.2 percent, a 2001 study showed. Of course, there is no support for gang-related drug activity, but Americans often see terrorism behind every puff of smoke.

In November 2003, DEA agent Kenneth Peterson was quoted in the Vancouver Sun as saying, about the idea of a terrorist link to a Maple Ridge-based pot operation, “I’m sure it’s a possibility.” The newspaper pointed out that the officer in charge of the whole cross-border investigation said that it had no connection with terrorism. In any case, the officers seized 3,000 marijuana plants and $262,000 cash in British Columbia, and made 14 arrests here and in California.

On another front, the DEA website names the Vancouver office as a participant in Operation Brain Drain, which ended last month. It stamped out a major methamphetamine operation with 90 arrests, as well as seizing nearly 100 pounds of meth and $3.5 million in Canadian funds. Canadians supplied the raw ingredient, ephedrine, and it was cooked in labs in California and Mexico to be sold throughout the States.

DEA acts ruled ‘illegal, shocking’

All we know of what the DEA is doing comes from their own press releases, and that is not enough, says Michael Vonn, the policy director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association  in Vancouver. “The war on drugs mentality is a complete failure, and now they are trying to import it here,” she says. “We are concerned about any informal agreements of sharing information between officers of different nations, and about the techniques they might use to get information. How do we know they are not infringing on our rights as individuals and as a nation? It does an end run around our right to privacy.”

In fact, one serious DEA infraction was noted in The Province in August 2002. The agency had not yet opened their Vancouver office, but were doing a joint operation in the Lower Mainland with the RCMP. DEA informant “CS2”, an American, posed as a Colombian trafficker and lured a man into a cocaine deal in White Rock. The DEA asked the RCMP for permission to continue, which involved a California meeting and then the sale of one-kilo bags of cocaine in Vancouver, but the RCMP said no. For some reason, the DEA continued the deal anyway, and sent their informant across the border again—which kyboshed their request to extradite the entrapped man for a U.S. trial. B.C. Supreme Court judge Janice Dillon ruled the DEA conduct “illegal”, “shocking”, and “detrimental to international co-operative agreements to assist in criminal matters”.

The BCCLA’s Vonn is particularly concerned about how this spring the FBI and DEA asked Canada to change our laws to compel companies to make it technically easy to tap internet exchanges and cellphone calls. Critics say this sounds rather like a spying carte blanche. “We think that stinks,” Vonn says. “It’s all below the radar and unchallengeable.”

Yesterday: Vancouver’s ‘harm reduction’ policies are winning converts from Vernon to Montreal.

Vancouver based Alisa Smith has written for the Globe and Mail, National Post, Ottawa Citizen and Vancouver Sun.  [Tyee]

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