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'The Dope Craze that's Terrorizing Vancouver'

The long, true history of hard drugs in Canada's poorest neighbourhood.

Lani Russwurm 13 Aug

Lani Russwurm lives, works, and is raising a daughter in the Downtown Eastside. He has an MA in history from Simon Fraser University and runs Past Tense, a local history blog, where a version of this article first appeared.

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The Downtown Eastside, home to a century of narcotics trade. Photo by Lani Russwurm.

I recently heard a senior city planner say that economic decline in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside preceded the drug problem now associated with the area. The point he was making was valid -- that the drug trade didn't cause the decline -- but his history was nevertheless skewed.

Similarly, Vancouver mayoral hopeful Peter Ladner recently contrasted today's 100 block of East Hastings with the one depicted in Fred Herzog photos from the '50s and '60s, lamenting that this used to be a "normal neighbourhood." The open drug scene, according to Ladner, "shouldn't happen here. We shouldn't be putting up with it."

The Odd Squad, a cop-run video production company, also promotes this misleading history by blaming harm reduction policies for today's drug problems in the Downtown Eastside.

Not only are these distortions of history, but coming from such influential folks, they also have significant implications for revitalization policy for the Downtown Eastside. If the drug scene is standing in the way of economic renewal, it follows that the junkies will have to go in order to attract new business and make it a "normal neighbourhood" once again.

Hard drug central

The Downtown Eastside has always been the centre of Vancouver's hard drug trade. In fact, Canada's first drug prohibition law originated here, introduced a century ago after Mackenzie King investigated compensation claims stemming from the 1907 anti-Asian riots in Chinatown and Japantown. Some of the claims happened to come from opium manufacturers and King became especially alarmed when he learned the opium scourge was spreading to white women and girls.

The drug scene never left this area and by the 1920s, drug use across the country was concentrated in poor urban neighbourhoods, something police did not discourage because it made tracking and arresting addicts easier. Beginning in 1939, Vancouver police were making regular inspections of skid road rooming houses looking for drugs and related paraphernalia.

The Downtown Eastside was also the largest drug scene in Canada. According to Catherine Carstairs in Jailed for Possession (University of Toronto Press, 2005), half of all drug convictions between 1946 and 1961 occurred in Vancouver. Chief Constable Mulligan estimated in 1955 that 70 per cent of all crime in the city was connected to the drug trade. By that time, there were 20 RCMP and 14 VPD officers dedicated to policing fewer than 1,500 addicts, a third of whom were incarcerated at any given time.

A 1955 Maclean's magazine article entitled "The Dope Craze that's Terrorizing Vancouver" estimated there were more like 2000 addicts in the city. The writer calculated that this amounted to "one addict for every two hundred and fifty citizens. This not only gives Vancouver the highest rate of drug addiction in the Western Hemisphere," he continued, "but means that if the city's rate of addiction continues to increase as at present, the crop of addicts now being born will constitute one in every sixteen Vancouverites."

The main strip for the drug trade in the 1950s was the 100 block East Hastings, just as it is now. A young lawyer named Harry Rankin described the view from his Main and Hastings office in 1958 as "a scene from Gorky's Lower Depths." This intersection is infamous today as the epicentre of the drug trade, but in the 1950s that distinction belonged to Hastings and Columbia, one block to the west.

'It never gets far from here'

According to Maclean's, Hastings and Columbia was known by the "drug racket" as far away as Montreal simply as "the Corner." The Broadway Hotel (now the Sunrise) did more than its share in cultivating the corner's ill-fame. "It is just as easy to buy drugs at this hotel," bemoaned police magistrate Oscar Orr, "as it is for a child to buy candy at a store."

The owner of the Broadway, Paul Ehman, resented criticism about drug activity in his hotel because he went out of his way to cooperate with the police. During a sting operation in which a Mountie spent two months posing as a junkie on the Corner, Ehman had the drapes removed so police could see inside from their lookout across the street in room 33 of the Empire Hotel (now the Brandiz). Drug dealers had been allowed to set up shop in the ground floor bar, where the Radio Station Café is today. Ehman also installed peepholes and a secret rear entrance "through which the police could rush in to nab a suspect."

The operation ended with 28 low-level dealers and addicts in custody and Ehman boasted that afterwards he chased the remaining addicts out of his establishment. The police were not as impressed with their apparent success. "The main street for drugs is still Hastings at Columbia," said one Vancouver police officer. "It never gets far from there. Between ourselves and the RCMP there's always someone watching it." Fifty years later and they're still watching.

There were also places outside the 100 block to score dope. Jimmy's Café, now a boarded-up non-descript gray building sandwiched between the Astoria and Ted Harris Paint, was a popular one in the '50s. All the dope-crazed hippies in the 1960s knew about Steamies at 50 East Hastings. It was still going strong as Kim's Kitchen in 1990 when Vancouver police Sgt. Bill Warwick described it as the city's "largest illicit-drugs drug store." The nostalgia-evoking Blue Eagle Café neon sign marks another spot where heroin could be bought for most of the café's 56-year existence.

Drug scene forced outdoors

The Downtown Eastside drug scene has gone through a number of significant changes over the years, notably with the rise of crack and HIV/AIDS. As areas such as Yaletown and Granville redeveloped, police helped by pushing street-involved people to the Downtown Eastside, which further intensified the concentration of the street drug scene. The loss of large numbers of low-income housing units in the last two decades has rendered a large portion of the Downtown Eastside addict population homeless, resulting in much more drug activity being conducted outdoors.

A parallel development was even more instrumental in pushing the drug trade outside, which is the single most conspicuous change since the supposed good-old-days when Herzog was snapping his famous photos. In the 1990s, the City of Vancouver went after "problem premises" with a vengeance, beginning in 1994 when it launched its award-winning Neighbourhood Integrated Service Teams to, among other things, coordinate enforcement resources and find creative ways of dealing with troublesome businesses.

At the end of 1999, Mayor Owen was able to boast that 20 business licenses were revoked in that year alone. The Blue Eagle, Kim's Kitchen, Jimmy's, the Broadway, the New Station and numerous other places where the drug trade used to be conducted discreetly and indoors no longer exist. Instead, derelict storefronts permeate the neighbourhood and give it its blighted appearance while users and dealers fill the streets and alleys. This is what makes the area scary for tourists and why businesses are reluctant to set up shop in the Downtown Eastside.

NDP imposes a curfew

For its part, the NDP government passed Bill 50 in 1998, allowing the city to restrict the hours Downtown Eastside businesses are allowed to operate. The curfew imposed under Bill 50 followed a long history of failed initiatives designed to curb substance abuse in the neighbourhood, including the closure of the liquor store at Main and Hastings and the removal of pay phones because they were being used for drug deals in the pre-cell phone era. Ironically, there's now little to do in the neighbourhood that's not drug or alcohol related after the city's only non-24 hours Waves Coffee closes at 10:00 pm.

The Downtown Eastside has been the country's most notorious centre for illicit drugs for a century now. During most of that time, the drug scene co-existed with legitimate business activity. Recent law enforcement campaigns have either been ineffectual or have simply shuffled drug activity onto the streets, creating the disorder we see in the Downtown Eastside today. It remains to be seen whether the current gentrification wave will succeed in pushing the drug scene elsewhere, but if it does, let's hope history doesn't become yet another casualty in the drug war.

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