Drug use 'our biggest challenge': police

Charges for possession, trafficking, importing up 57%

Andrew Seymour and Jake Rupert, The Ottawa Citizen

Published: Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The number of drug charges Ottawa police laid for the possession, trafficking and importation of cocaine jumped 57 per cent last year.

The police statistics, obtained by the Citizen yesterday, come at a time when Ottawa is battling a growing reputation as a haven for crack-cocaine addicts, and frustrated residents are holding protests demanding that city and provincial officials take action to stem the tide of illegal drug use.

While the dramatic increases could partially be attributed to increased enforcement and attention by police, Chief Vernon White said the statistics are an indication that the use of crack cocaine is on the rise in Ottawa.

"It tells me that the concerns about drug use downtown are absolutely right. That is probably our biggest challenge right now," said Chief White.

It is the third year in a row the number of charges laid in relation to cocaine under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act have risen. That number has more than doubled since 2004.

Police laid 546 drug charges in connection with cocaine in 2006, compared to only 216 charges in 2004. In 2005, police laid 347 charges.

The police statistics also showed a 28-per-cent increase in the number of charges in relation to marijuana, and a 78-per-cent increase in relation to a broad category labelled "other drugs." Overall, drug charges were up 40 per cent last year.

Wendy Muckle, executive director of Ottawa Inner City Health, said there's been a marked increase in the number of people using crack in the city over the last couple of years.

"We're seeing more use than we did previously. It's been quite a noticeable rise, and I think it's visible on our streets."

Her group is the main health care provider to homeless and addicted people in the city, and Ms. Muckle attributes the rise in crack use to a change in tactics by dealers.

She said about 18 months ago, dealers reduced the size of hits they sell and lowered the price.

"It's a volume business now," Ms. Muckle said. "They sell smaller amounts for less and because it's so cheap, people who didn't used to use are using."

She said she also finds that lately she's seeing more and more young people, particularly women, caught in the throes of crack addiction.

"These are people 18 to early 20s, and you see them on the streets for only a couple of weeks and they look like hell," Ms. Muckle said. "It's very concerning."

Chief White said crack cocaine, which sells for around $5 a hit, is extremely profitable for dealers. "It's an easy drug to sell. It's high volume, with good profit margins," he said.

A day after releasing ward-by-ward crime statistics that showed nearly 10- per-cent increases in Criminal Code offences in the city's two busiest wards, Rideau-Vanier and Somerset, Chief White said past experience has shown other criminal activity has also risen. Overall, the number of Criminal Code offences rose slightly in Ottawa last year, although violent crime dropped seven per cent.

"It's a root cause of a lot of our other crimes. If we deal with this drug issue, we should be able to see a further decline in crime statistics," he said, adding police intend to maintain a high level of enforcement this year to get the problem under control.

In November 2006, 10 more officers were added to the department's drug squad and neighbourhood officers have been stepping up enforcement to deal with growing community concerns, Chief White said.

"We'll continue to hit those areas as we have been. Gathering intelligence about crack houses, particularly, and trying to knock off dealers," said Chief White, adding enforcement needs to be coupled with proper prevention and education programs to effectively address the problem.

Opening a proposed $8-million, 48-bed youth treatment centre is critical to that effort, he said.

"The drug treatment facility cannot be a long-term solution. It needs to be an immediate solution. This will be the greatest crime prevention tool this city could see."

Chief White also welcomed new ideas that could reduce the burden on police and serve as a "disruptive" influence on crack dealers and users.

On Monday, the police services board sponsored a motion presented by Crime Prevention Ottawa encouraging the province to adopt new legislation that would target problem properties.

Ottawa Councillor Jacques Legendre said the Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods legislation could allow officials to go in and help landlords quickly shut down properties that have become crack or prostitution dens.

Meanwhile, a group of social support and health organizations will hold a meeting tomorrow night to discuss their next moves after city council voted two weeks ago to kill the crack-pipe program.

The program saw the city making clean crack pipes available on demand through the organizations, with the goal of reducing the spread of HIV and hepatitis C among users. The organizations supported the program because they believe, along with the city's chief medical officer of health and an epidemiologist who studied the program, that it was reducing the spread of disease.

Officials from the organizations have roundly criticized council for the decision to kill the program, and have called on the provincial government to strip council of its responsibilities as a board of public health.