This is crack cocaine shown in small baggies as it is sold on the street - U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Ottawa has a problem with crack cocaine.
Its tentacles are everywhere. In the ByWard Market, obviously, but also in the middle-class enclaves of Orléans and Barrhaven and Kanata.
Police officers, drug counsellors, community groups, politicians, outreach workers, judges and an army of others in the fight know that realistically it will never leave town.
“It isn’t a war against drugs,” says Ottawa police Chief Vern White. “It’s a continuous battle.”
Addicts will tell you the same thing, he says: “They are in a battle and we are part of the battle. I’ve yet to meet a young person who says they can’t wait to be an addict. I’ve yet to meet an addict who says they enjoy being one.”
In their desperation, crack addicts commit crime. They steal from cars, shoplift and sell their bodies — anything for a hit.
White and others close to the problem say there are 5,000 crack addicts in the city — maybe more. And, of course, many users don’t use crack exclusively.
“I was told there are about 6,000 intravenous drug users in this city,” said White. “Probably half or more crack addicts are not intravenous. They smoke it and don’t use needles. So what’s our true number of addicts? I have no idea, but it’s huge — at least 10,000.”
Even still, White and Mayor Larry O’Brien insist the city is making progress in the cleanup.
“The year before I ran (for mayor), I couldn’t walk around the Market with my dog Remy without being approached a minimum of six or seven times by panhandlers,” said Larry O’Brien.
Drug traffickers prey on the homeless, he said, “giving them 30 minutes of happiness for $3 or $4.”
One hit of crack makes you feel like king of the world. Twenty minutes later, it drops you like a brick.
On the hunt for the next high, the desperate beg, steal or borrow. Dealers prey on the vulnerable: At $10 to $20 a hit, the price is right.
O’Brien insists there has been a gradual improvement in the Market area, “but people haven’t noticed it.”
Earlier this month, in the third major sweep in the past 18 months police arrested 84 alleged dealers in an operation they dubbed Project Woody — the nickname of a police officer involved. Police say they anticipate laying a total of 322 charges.
Critics of such sweeps say they are cosmetic, temporary solutions that shift pressure from one place to another. O’Brien, who lives in an upscale condominium near the Market, would disagree.
He points to the underpass across from the Rideau Centre. “I remember in 2006 meeting with a bunch of colleagues — Preston Manning, Monte Solberg and some others — and seeing flashing lights and discovering that some poor street kid — a young man named Cactus — had been killed in the underpass.
“It became part of my campaign to solve that single problem — to fence in that underpass and light it so kids couldn’t sleep there at night. Now, during the day, buskers and artists can go down there.
“I never give money to panhandlers,” he added, “but I’ll always put a toonie in a busker’s guitar case.”
The mayor thinks panhandlers are a conduit between well-meaning people and drug dealers.
Others would say that if an addict is begging, he’s not stealing. “The reality,” says the mayor, “is that they do both.”
O’Brien campaigned successfully to eliminate Ottawa’s crack pipe program while simultaneously pushing for increased street-level police enforcement.
White delivered on the enforcement and is also opposed to the relatively inexpensive distribution of clean stems — crack pipes — because he says there is no evidence it stops addicts from sharing drug paraphernalia. However, he and the mayor are enthusiastic supporters of the city’s needle-exchange program. The city handed out 500,000 sterile needle syringes last year and received 676,000 used needles back.
Why the two men support one program and not the other puzzles many outreach workers. And yet — as this Citizen series will reveal — nothing in the world of crack addiction is black or white.
“We are seeing increased interest in the needle service,” said Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa’s associate medical officer of health and manager of clinical programs. “It’s difficult to know whether that means increased drug use or more awareness.”
The aim, she says, is to reduce HIV and hepatitis, so single-use supplies are key.
Because the city it not allowed to distribute clean crack pipes, Etches said her staff direct addicts to the Somerset Street West Community Health Centre. “We’re interested in measures that reduce harm,” she added.
O’Brien concedes there is work to do. “But one step at a time, we have been able to show a steady improvement.”
White is more direct. “It’s not just a health issue — it’s a crime issue, it’s a safety issue, it’s a security issue. It’s a City of Ottawa problem,” he says.
“The problems downtown are…READ MORE HERE.