DRENCHED IN DOPE
You can find anything -- from pot to hillbilly heroin -- in a matter of minutes at Dundas and Richmond streets in London's core, Free Press reporter Patrick Maloney learned during a pair of routine downtown drug busts. And the presence of the Hells Angels
Look. Take a good, long look. Right there, at that young guy in a golf shirt.
His collar "popped," or flipped up, in the fratboy fashion, sauntering through the Dundas-Richmond Street intersection to a McDonald's walk-up window.
Talking and laughing, maybe up to nothing. Maybe up to no good.
Look just a little west, that guy, leaning up against that tinted-glass wall with his arms crossed, the one with the ponytail and ratty shoes. Keep looking -- buses and passengers have come and gone repeatedly in the past 20 minutes, but he hasn't budged.
What's he doing there?
Before Fratboy dashes across the street and hops into an out-of-place luxury SUV, he's hanging out in front of a convenience store on the southeast corner. A metre or so from him, a toddler in an orange golf shirt waits for the bus. He's presumably with a parent, at a presumably safe downtown corner.
A pair of elderly women, one with red hair, the other white, shuffle past Ponytail. Three pretty teenage girls walk past and his eyes follow, from his right to left, as they go by.
In the hustle and bustle of life in a city of 330,000, London police say passersby may suspect, but never notice, a common trait in mid-major cities: The downtown drug trade -- ecstasy, marijuana, hillbilly heroin. Just about anything, at any time.
"When I think about a chronic problem of drug trafficking, I think of Dundas and Richmond," says London police Det. Waight, an often-undercover officer who asked that his first name not be published.
"We do get complaints from business owners. . . . They're here every day and they see what's going on every day," added Waight, whose most powerful weapon is plain old common sense.
"Someone just passing through may not recognize the activity that's going on. It doesn't take much to sit here and watch people and have an idea of who's doing what."
Though it isn't the only intersection with a drug problem, Dundas-Richmond is the only one with a drug problem that's within this city's supposed downtown renaissance. It's the core of London's core.
Dangerous? Not necessarily. But definitely drug-drenched, police say.
Waight and Det.-Const. Berg, who also asked his first name not be used, work in the street drug unit, veterans of the slow fight against drug dealers.
They are hopeful on this sunny May afternoon that a pair of impending undercover drug busts will ease the concerns of downtown merchants, whose complaints are many.
The busts may also get everyone in London -- teens, parents and Pollyannas -- to take a long look at the trouble taking root at the usually crowded corners at Dundas-Richmond.
"It's unfortunate for London," Waight says. "For a visitor or tourist coming to London . . . they come downtown and it's not the best of sights to see."
There was a police sweep at the intersection just a few years ago, Waight says, netting a man who's apparently back there again, dealing.
"It obviously didn't make much of an impression."
An undercover drug buy is quick and complex.
In this instance, the street drug unit has keyed in on a tiny variety store a few steps north of Dundas-Richmond. It's no bigger than a large bedroom but has become a known place to get OxyContin, a prescription painkiller known as hillbilly heroin.
The pills are usually crushed by an illegal user and either shot or snorted, giving them the time-released dose -- up to 80 milligrams -- at once.
Berg, who could blend in behind any bar or in any warehouse, is walking south along Richmond Street and tucks into the Cup Of Coffee shop. Waight, watching in a nearby car, is in radio contact with other officers.
They've all put in countless hours -- Waight won't specify how many - -- preparing to bust this one person. There was a failed attempted buy a day earlier, and it takes a lot more than simply walking in and asking for drugs.
Undercover guys like Berg practise role-playing. There's sifting through tips from informants and concerned citizens.
The drug squad meets to sort out the details, making sure officers are nearby in case, in Waight's words, "something goes wrong."
Those words would prove prophetic two days later in Windsor, when Const. John Atkinson was killed during a seemingly routine drug stop, proving the threat is always present.
Berg is on his own in the convenience store, but he's back out again in only 28 seconds. Waight figures the visit was so quick because the suspect -- he works behind the counter -- wasn't working.
Then the radio blares once. Berg returns to another police car.
"( Berg )'s back in and it's successful," the voice says.
"It's successful?" a surprised Waight asks.
"Yeah," comes the reply. "He bought again."
That there are drugs downtown is little surprise. But that they can be bought so quickly is surprising, even to Waight.
"Once they've made contact with ( a potential customer ), they don't waste time," Berg explains later, showing four 80-mg OxyContin pills he bought for $.
Days later, police arrest a 40-year-old man in the shop. It's one of London's biggest OxyContin busts, netting more than 300 of the pills.
"At $ a pill, it ( the profit ) adds up," Waight says.
* * * *
Five days later, on that sunny weekday afternoon at Dundas-Richmond, Berg's back. He's looking for a seller, confident someone will bite when he asks for marijuana.
So-called random virtue testing is illegal, Waight explains. In other words, police can't just walk up to anyone anywhere, ask for drugs and arrest them if they produce some.
But Dundas-Richmond's reputation provides the probable grounds for police to ask around.
Because the area is known for drug trafficking, Berg can ask around and reasonably expect to find something, Waight says. So he will -- in a few minutes.
Now, Fratboy is still hanging out at the corner until that out-of-place SUV pulls up to the curb. Fratboy skirts through the intersection, jumps in and the SUV heads west.
Waight runs its licence plate and uncovers some unsettling information. It's licensed to a suspected drug dealer, he's told. And that person has ties to the Hells Angels, the fearsome biker gang widely considered Canada's biggest organized crime threat.
A minute later, the SUV drives east past Waight again, music blaring out its open windows. The driver turns north up Richmond Street, ignoring a posted sign barring left-hand turns.
"Where's a cop when you need one?" Waight asks drily.
Berg is standing against a brick pillar at Dundas-Richmond's southwest corner and, just then, Ponytail walks away. A coincidence, or maybe a close call.
In only two minutes, Berg, having spoken to two men gathered in a gaggle of a dozen young people at that southwest corner, is approached by a teenage girl.
She walks away with him, then returns to the street corner. A uniformed officer walks up and pulls her away.
She's 17, police say.
"She said, 'Are you looking for something?' Then she said 'Let's go for a walk,' " Berg later recalls of the girl, from whom he bought two, one-gram bags of pot with a marked $ bill.
"She knows what she's doing out there."
Waight admits to feeling "a little bit of sympathy" for these teens, who are "doing the dirty work" for other, older dealers. There are, however, no clear-cut answers.
"There's no simple solution when it comes to trafficking," Waight says.
"People feel despondent and feel there's no sense in steering away from drugs because their life has spiralled downward."
* * * *
But there is another question: So what?
So what if someone's selling dime bags of pot on the street corner? There's no shortage of people who contend it should be legalized, anyway.
Waight points to the presence of that Hells Angels-associated SUV -- with little kids, grandmothers, businesspeople walking nearby -- as the answer.
"I've been to a number of grow houses where people are making millions and millions of dollars," he says.
"A lot of it is organized crime. It's not the harmless offence that people make it out to be."
But it is common, with dozens of dealers in downtown London at any time, police estimate.
And despite the skilled, calm efforts of the London police street drug squad, the frustrating fight against it can, at times, seem like a losing one.
"It clears out for a while ( after a police sweep ), then a new set of people come to sell the drugs," Waight says.
"It's a constant problem. It's a non-stop effort."
At Mainstreet London, the group that promotes downtown revitalization, the police efforts are more than welcome.
"That corner ( is ) ripe for this kind of activity," general manager Janette McDonald says of the Dundas-Richmond intersection.
"We're totally appreciative of the police for trying to clean it up."
Neither of the recent busts created any commotion.
The group of people remains at Dundas-Richmond's southwest corner.
The busy downtown traffic -- vehicles and pedestrians -- moves on, uninterrupted after the arrests.
None of them even noticed it happened.
In some ways, it's like it didn't.
OxyContin is a powerful, highly addictive painkiller often given to cancer patients. Its street nickname, hillbilly heroin, was coined once it became a drug of choice in rural communities. Though it can be obtained legally with a prescription, it's illegal for a person to sell OxyContin pills.
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