On July 16, 2015, the Victoria Police Department issued warrants for 16 suspected drug dealers accused of preying on people who use shelters in Victoria. The result of a 6-week undercover sting in Our Place and Rock Bay Landing shelters saw a combined total of nineteen counts of trafficking issued to these suspects who were also identified by police as gang affiliated.
The sting and media following the incident made a distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. This moral and criminal policing masked the real issue at hand, that the institution of policing (and ‘partners’ in social service agencies) create and maintain an environment in which people who use (and sell) drugs are more vulnerable to death and disease.
Victoria police chief Frank Elsner’s brand of ‘community policing’ expresses a desire to work closely with community agencies to have his officers build relationships with street-involved people and refer individuals to mental health and addictions support as an alternative to criminalization. However, his strong ties to anti-gang initiatives and focus on enforcing the drug trade results in the continued surveillance and harassment of people who use drugs preventing access to health and social services. Police “alternatives” to criminalization explicitly exclude people flagged as drug dealers. But is there a hard division between drug dealers and drug users?
Media coverage of the most recent sting painted a divide between victimized and addicted drug users who use health and social services, and violent drug dealers who prey on these people preventing them from accessing health and social services. In the Times Colonist article reporting on the sting, Inspector Scott McGregor, who heads the downtown police beat and bike units that interact with low-income people on the street referred to drug dealers who use social service organizations as “opportunists profiting off of the illness and sickness of some of the people who have to access these facilities.” In the same article, the manager of the Rock Bay shelter is quoted as saying: “Where we have to draw the line is on violence, on trafficking, on the aggression that makes the whole neighbourhood unsafe.” A CHEK News story hears Don Evans, ED of Our Place, condemning drug dealers who “prey on the vulnerability of people who use our services…many of them that suffer from addictions.” They are drawing a line between poor people who need social services, and those who contribute to the ‘problem’ by supplying drugs and making social services violent and unsafe. This division is based on discrimination and stigma, not facts. But the creation of this division justifies a lack of health and social service provision for a certain segment of the street population deemed undeserving of care.
People use drugs for many reasons. People are forced to buy drugs illegally because of the War on Drugs that enforces drug laws with no effect on the demand for drugs. The War on Drugs also creates barriers to people’s access of medicine for the management of physical, emotional and spiritual pain by criminalizing an issue of public health. Those who sell drugs on the street are meeting a need that will not go away by removing (a few) suppliers.
On the street it is not drug user or drug dealer. Street dealers are also often users, selling drugs to make money to meet their own health needs. Street dealers also depend on health and social services, including shelters. The 16 people who were accused of predatory dealing are not different from those who use the services. They are both users of inner city health and social services, and providers of another service, illicit in the eyes of the law but essential to many on the street.
Policing the ‘problem’ of drug dealing puts people who use drugs at greater risk of death and disease in two main ways. First, police presence in shelters prevents people from accessing these essential services. The recent 6-week sting highlights the fact that police were not in shelters building relationships with shelter users, they were in shelters collecting intelligence on the individuals using the shelters. This is what many people in the street community expect and this is why they do not enter these spaces when police are present. Second, arresting street level dealers increases the harm associated with illicit drug use (e.g., fatal overdose) by disrupting the existing network and relationships between those who buy and those who sell, causing people to buy drugs of unknown quality from people who they either don’t know or don’t have a relationship with. Removing some of the supply does not change the demand; people who use drugs will be forced to put themselves at greater risk to acquire drugs.
The War on Drugs is a failed approach yet continues to be the foundation on which policing strategies stand. The predominance of this approach enables it to move beyond the confines of the institution of policing and into community organizations that end up policing their ‘clients’ determining which people should and should not access services. This approach makes it impossible to recognize the service that drug dealers provide to those who are failed by formal social service and health programs (i.e., access to pain management in an environment that criminalizes pain relief for some members of society) and also the importance of engaging with people who sell drugs for the purpose of preventing deaths in our community. For example, in communities where harm reduction services and supplies remain criminalized, medical staff can distribute harm reduction supplies and education through networks of drug dealers, and receive information about strong and toxic drug supply from people who sell drugs. However this needs to be done in a way that does NOT involved police.
The divide between the deserving and undeserving poor undermines harm reduction and social service efforts. This divide makes ‘the deserving’ (some people who use drugs) more vulnerable to death and disease, and prevents the ‘undeserving’ (people flagged as selling drugs) from accessing essential community resources and supports, with the same outcome.