A gray-bearded man wearing an army fatigue jacket and a multicolored, multitassled jester's hat is dancing along Hastings Street, evading the crowds of people, some of whom join the glaze-eyed pied piper.
One of the street's several stores where marijuana paraphernalia is sold has a window sign that reads "Bongs not Bombs." And, at one unimposing storefront, addicts enter to legally inject themselves with heroin or methamphetamine.
Depending on how such things are measured, the distance between the Downtown Eastside neighborhood and the glitzy, waterfront nerve center of the 2010 Winter Olympics is either three-quarters of a mile or a thousand light-years.
Amid the hookers, hookahs, and head shops that surround its Hastings Street hub, you won't find many of the Olympic-sponsor ads that are as ubiquitous as the rain this festive February in Vancouver.
You won't see many of the well-heeled international visitors either - those staying at the Fairmont Hotel, shopping at Versace, or dining at Aqua Riva. Warned about Downtown Eastside in Olympic guidebooks, they tend to stay away.
What those gritty enough to make the short walk will discover, however, is an area of the city where the drug culture is brazenly flaunted - a kind of quirky, sad, and somewhat hellish Haight-Ashbury for the new millennium.
"This place don't scare us," said David Pelletier, 46, a Quebec native who was panhandling there the afternoon of the Winter Olympics' opening ceremonies. "We like it this way. Keeps all the damn Olympic tourists out."
The neighborhood is, in many ways, an outgrowth of Canada's, and especially British Columbia's, more relaxed attitude toward drugs.
Though it's widely assumed that marijuana is legal here, it isn't. Not everyone is convinced, however, that some of the bolder head shops don't traffic in cannabis. Legally, though, the drug can be purchased only at shops licensed to sell it for medicinal purposes.
But Downtown East residents, and Vancouverites in general, will tell you that as long as you're not dealing it or giving it to children, the police won't bother you.
It doesn't take a lengthy visit to realize that's the case.
In the parks that adjoin Downtown East, it's not unusual to see a couple sharing a joint as they walk hand in hand. The smell of marijuana is noticeable. There are T-shirts and placards touting local varieties of cannabis such as BC Bud, Hydro, and Chronic. The British Columbia Marijuana Party was founded here.
At places such as the New Amsterdam Café - named not for New York, but for the European city where drug cafes are a popular tourist draw - and at the Marijuana Park Bookshop, you can purchase exotic smoking devices, intricate bongs, beautiful glass hookahs, roach clips, and rolling papers.
And at 139 E. Hastings St., in the government-funded Insite Safe Injection Site, nearly 500 addicts a day come to shoot up - in clean booths, with clean needles, under the supervision of medical staff and with counseling help available.
There are at least 60 such facilities around the world. The idea here was to limit the spread of HIV and diseases through dirty syringes, to prevent overdoses, to give Canada's addicts access to help, and to corral the city's hard-drug users into a single locale.
Not surprisingly, Insite has been under attack from a number of civic, political, and religious leaders ever since it opened in 2003. Some oppose it on moral grounds; others argue that there's no evidence that it has been successful in reducing drug addiction.
A recent legal challenge was fended off when the British Columbia Court of Appeals backed Insite's right to exist. Federally, Canada's conservative government has promised to appeal the ruling to the nation's supreme court.
"The courts have now ruled twice in favor of Insite," said Mark Townsend, who heads the agency that oversees its operation, the Portland Hotel Society. "We wish [Prime Minister] Stephen Harper would stop wasting court time and the taxpayers' money and start helping to solve the drug problem in our community."
Insite's annual budget is $2.5 million, and according to figures it has compiled, the facility dealt with 485 overdoses in 2009 and helped 411 people get into detox programs.
"Suppose all that happened out here, on the street," said Pelletier, who said he came from Montreal because of British Columbia's more relaxed attitudes about drugs. "Do you think the same loudmouthed people would be calling it for it to shut down?"
Downtown Eastside is the oldest neighborhood in Vancouver. City hall is there and a number of department stores used to be. But as the area decayed and businesses moved west with the city, it developed into a skid row.
While local leaders have made periodic pushes to revive the area, there remain plenty of youth hostelries and transit hotels, cheap bars, and littered streets.
It's not the picturesque Vancouver being touted on all those Olympic commercials and brochures.
"It's quite colorful, isn't it?" said Jean Higson, a visitor from Britain who was exploring Downtown Eastside over the weekend. "But quite sad, too, in so many respects. But so close to all the Olympic hubbub, it's really quite striking to find this sort of place."
February 15, 2010