Storefront Drug Sales Hit The City Like A Tsunami In The Mid 1990S And Police Have Struggled To Keep A Lid On It Ever Since
When dozens of police officers swept down on the Da Kine cafe for defiantly selling marijuana over the counter during the summer it drew national attention, adding to Vancouver's reputation as a city whose citizens regularly challenge marijuana prohibition.
The dramatic Commercial Drive daytime showdown between jeering marijuana advocates and police officers, however, was only the latest example of the struggle by police and city officials to keep the lid on commercial enterprises selling not only marijuana, but other illegal drugs as well.
"At any one time there would certainly be at least a half-dozen that would be actively selling," Insp. Bob Rolls said of the Downtown Eastside businesses in his area of responsibility: District Two, between Boundary Road and Cambie Street and from Broadway north to the Burrard Inlet.
"If you get into the bars and the rooming houses you would have a lot more than that," Rolls said. He said his officers are working on gathering evidence for charges or working with city bylaw enforcement officers to shut half a dozen such businesses.
"In addition to those, there would be a number of other ones," he said of those which have not yet appeared on the police radar.
Police and city sources say they are determined to keep rooting drug retailers of various types out of commercial establishments such as convenience stores, furniture shops, low-rent hotels and restaurants.
Rolls acknowledged the police crackdown on the open illegal drug market in the Downtown Eastside caused some dealers to seek the shelter of storefront operations and rooming houses.
On the other side of the debate, at least as far as marijuana is concerned, former Marijuana Party candidate Tim Felger said the battle will not end with Da Kine. He said many more apparently legitimate businesses are selling marijuana around Vancouver and the Lower Mainland, albeit in a much more low-key manner than the formerly high-profile Da Kine restaurant, which gave up its business licence before a schedule hearing with the city early this month.
Felger said he and other pro-marijuana legalization advocates plan on opening many other such marijuana retail shops.
Vancouver police department Sgt. Teresa Buckoll leads a squad of about
12 officers in the front line of the struggle against such drug dealing enterprises, operating primarily in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
Police say ridding the city of illegal drug retailers is critical to any efforts to revitalize the impoverished area.
"You do not want drug dealers going in and taking over a building.
That is the last thing that we want," Rolls said.
Buckoll adds that every retail outlet for illegal drugs makes it more difficult for legitimate business people.
"Owners who choose to sell drugs just further victimize the drug addicts, the mentally ill and the other businesses in the areas who truly try to make a difference in this area," she said.
Merely gathering evidence against a drug retailer and proceeding with charges is not effective at closing down an operation, even if a conviction is obtained, Buckoll said.
"They can come back the next day and continue business as normal," she said.
Key to the strategy of shutting down such operations is working with the city licensing department.
When the business owner or management is implicated, the city can shut down the entire operation, so hiring someone else to sit behind the counter and sell drugs is not an option, she said.
In addition to the Da Kine Smoke & Beverage Shop, the city has pulled licences for:
* The Coffee & Deli at 310 Carrall for selling crack cocaine, in addition to donairs and coffee as advertised.
* The Grocery Shop, at 74 West Hastings, for selling crack, rather than groceries.
* The Ngu Binh Vietnamese Restaurant, at 3980 Fraser Street, for operating a basement marijuana-growing operation.
* The Hawaii Market, at 4197 Fraser, also for operating a marijuana-growing operation.
* The American and Marr pubs for illegal drug dealing, fencing stolen goods and terrible living conditions.
Police and licensing officials have also conducted operations against the New Wings Hotel at 147 Dunlevy St., where drug dealing was rampant, but the business was revoked for licensing infractions when police decided it was too dangerous to mount an undercover operation to buy drugs.
Buckoll said such an operation would have been too risky because operators only sold to one person at a time and when they were isolated behind a locked door.
"Once you were in, you were locked in," Buckoll said.
When examining rooms at the New Wings Hotel with city staff, police discovered a sophisticated video surveillance system. It was used to monitor traffic on Dunlevy and Oppenheimer Park so dealers carrying portable two-way radios could be made aware of the activities of rival dealers as well as police.
"Basically they controlled Oppenheimer Park and the drug dealing with two rival groups," Rolls said. The relatively sophisticated operation was not merely addicts selling to support their habits.
"There are definitely tied to organized crime and a lot of them are what we are calling offshore criminals right now. People from other countries were actively involved," he said.
Buckoll estimated about 25 per cent of the tenants in the New Wings Hotel (now under new ownership) were drug dealers.
Crack and marijuana use was wide-spread.
"The criminals who lived there, and it was full of them, actually bossed around the manager. It was brutal," she said.
When Buckoll and city licensing staff entered the room where the remote hidden camera was operated, she did not immediately recognize it as surveillance equipment.
"The surveillance system was much more sophisticated than what I am used to," she explained. "We saw it all, but we did not understand how it worked. It was one of the techie guys on my squad who is good at that kind of stuff. He turned it on and it actually projected (an
image) about six feet by six feet on the wall," she said.
At the time the New Wings Hotel was receiving about $13,000 a month from the B.C. government to house welfare recipients.
Although the Da Kine raid drew unprecedented attention, dealing illegal drugs from storefronts has been a part of Vancouver life for at least a decade.
The most recent wave of storefront operations started with a migration of inner-city, U.S.-style crack cocaine dealers moving into seedy Downtown Eastside convenience stores in the mid 1990s.
Marijuana advocates such as former Marijuana Party candidate Tim Felger say the Da Kine heralds a new chapter in a grassroots counter attack against police in the war on drugs.
If it was just about selling marijuana, dealers would stick to the tried and relatively safe, cheap and convenient dial-a-dope system where users dial a dealer, usually on a cell phone, and wait for their drug delivery.
"We want hundreds of these places. We want them across Canada. We want a thousand storefronts across Canada," Felger said of the storefront operations. He predicted many will surface in neighbourhoods across the country.
Felger, who plans to run for office in next year's provincial election after a failed attempt in this year's federal election, said people and especially the police better get used to the concept of storefront marijuana retailers.
He said Da Kine was only one of a number of such stores currently operating in the Lower Mainland.
"There are 18 stores that I know of that are selling pot under the counter," Felger said, and about 10 other would-be proprietors are looking to establish another 10 locations.
Just as people have accepted legal alcohol outlets since prohibition was done away with decades ago, Felger said, they need to adjust to the inevitability of pot shops.
Not only are pot entrepreneurs setting themselves up in convenience stores, Felger said, they have already moved into a variety of other businesses.
"There is one vegetable store. There is one gas station. There is one convenience store, with newspapers and magazines located right next to a bus stop. And a video store. I have got a video store in there. The guy sells under the counter at a video store."
Later he remembers another.
"I would add a pizza store to your list," he said after explaining how he made his first million setting up pizza stores, then selling the company.
Vancouver police Insp. Kash Heed agreed in a separate interview that there are more store front operations selling marijuana in addition to the formerly high profile Da Kine.
"I can tell you there are other active investigations going on in Vancouver with respect to illicit businesses which are selling illicit drugs," he said.
Unlike Da Kine, however, Heed said, the other outlets are trying to conceal their operations.
"We have indications that they are not just concentrated around the Commercial Drive area. They are elsewhere in Vancouver," he said.
Heed said the phenomena of storefront drug sales in the mid-1990s arrived suddenly, and the city was not prepared, although U.S. law enforcement officials warned the problem would head north.
"That was when the epidemic hit, and it hit like a tsunami in Vancouver. It was a migration from the U.S.
"The U.S., probably five to seven years earlier, experienced a cocaine epidemic which was causing havoc in the urban centres in America. It slowly migrated north and it came across the border into Vancouver."
Heed said cocaine was the predominant drug. First, it was injected by the heroin addicts who moved to cocaine. Later, it was the smokable, cheaper crack cocaine that dominated the storefront illegal drug stores in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
"It was a phenomena which was taking place in their urban centres and sure enough we did not take heed of the warnings which were given to us by the Americans in the late 1980s," he said.
And it is not a situation that is unique to the troubled Downtown Eastside, nor even Vancouver.
Two employees at Kevin's Convenience Store in Surrey's Whalley area were charged last June with possession of drugs for the purpose of trafficking and drug trafficking.
Like Vancouver, Surrey called in bylaw and fire officers after it was discovered a fire door had been heavily fortified.
That undercover investigation was launched after numerous complaints from neighbours that the store had become a source for heroin and crack cocaine.