PORTLAND -- Welcome to the city: Heroin-overdose deaths by the hundreds.
A national reputation as a drug centre. Open sales of crack, heroin and
meth in the old core of the city, with sales and sellers spilling into
nearby Chinatown.

No, this isn't Vancouver. It just sounds like it.

It's Portland, Vancouver's spiritual sister city.

But Portland has become a destination stop for Vancouver pilgrims as
they search for solutions to Vancouver's drug and urban-decay problems.
That's because Portland has moved ahead on three strategies that are
just words on paper for Vancouver so far: Drug courts. A coordinated,
well-funded treatment system. And housing, some of it specifically
designated as alcohol- and drug-free, that connects to the treatment
system.

In Vancouver, drug court is the likely to be the first to arrive. City
and provincial sources say the provincial government is likely to
initiate a drug court within months, making Vancouver the second city in
Canada -- after Toronto -- to have one.

But while drug courts are relatively new in Canada, they've been around
for a decade in the United States. Portland was the third city in the
U.S. to have drug courts and, after 10 years of experience, Portland
police, judges, lawyers, and clients think they work.

"I didn't like the drug trials I was doing. They just felt completely
stupid," said Douglas Beckman, a lawyer who used to do his fair share of
drug cases. Now he's the judge in Portland's drug court. "This feels
like we're actually doing something. My goal is to keep them out of jail
and off drugs."

On a recent Monday afternoon, about 30 people settle themselves in his
courtroom. Only one is a newcomer. The rest are there to report on their
progress in their year-long drug treatment programs.

Deana Chase, a young woman who works as a direct-care attendant with the
handicapped, sits morosely on a bench at the back of the courtroom.

She is having to attend two full court sessions in a row -- a "sit
sanction" -- because she was starting to slide.

First up is Danielle Hammons, who was charged with possession last year
when a police officer stopped the car she was in and found her carrying
meth.

"Did you drop out and scare us for a while?" Beckman asks Hammons, a
small-boned young woman whose training as a gymnast in her teen years
still shows in the way she carries herself. "You're not going to
sabotage yourself this time, I hope. You have a history of blowing it at
the end."

Hammons' lawyer explains that Hammons' boyfriend is in jail now, which
will probably help her finish her treatment without any more problems.

Beckman nods. "He was a bad person for you to be hanging with."

With that, he sets a tentative graduation date of March 13 for Hammons.

If she keeps up her attendance at group sessions and acupuncture, along
with getting the required six weeks of urine tests that show no drug
use, she'll graduate from the program and won't get a felony charge on
her record. That's the main factor that motivated her to choose the
drug-court route when it was offered. (The drug court takes only about
10 per cent of the city's cases.)

So it goes with the rest. Beckman considers whether to give two days'
jail to one woman who has missed half her treatment sessions. (He
doesn't, eventually.) Someone else gets a sit sanction for having two
dirty urine tests in a row, along with lots of absences at treatment
sessions. No one, today, is thrown out of the program altogether,
although that happens to about one out of every two who enter.

Those who fail go back into the traditional system -- the only kind that
exists in Vancouver. They serve their time, get a felony record, and are
turned back out on to the street, with no offer or incentive to get them
into treatment.

The drug-court system is a hybrid of compassion and coercion that is
difficult to categorize in the polarized world of arguments about drug
strategies. It pushes users into treatment, rather than waiting for them
to come around to deciding they're ready for it.

On the other hand, once they're in the treatment program, Portland's
approach is relatively tolerant. Hammons, like many, continued using
drugs off and on for the first six months she was in the program. She
stayed in by clearing the bar of minimum requirements: Every second
urine test (they're done once a week on a random day) was clean, and she
went to at least 80 per cent of the treatment sessions at the InAct
centre downtown. InAct is the agency set up nine years ago to provide
treatment exclusively for drug-court clients.

That kind of coercion plus compassion is the reigning ethos of
Portland's approach to drugs and drug treatment, in general.

Although the city is considered one of the most liberal in the U.S., it
has established "drug-free zones" in the downtown area. Police can
exclude from those areas anyone who has been convicted of, or even
arrested for, a drug offence. If the excluded are found within the
drug-free zone, they can be arrested for trespass.

At the local sobering centre (another facility that Vancouver doesn't
have), people sleep off their drugs and alcohol on a bare concrete floor
-- again, because, "we don't want to make it too comfortable to do
this," says Richard Harris, the director of the agency that runs it.

Safe-injection sites for drug users are not even a consideration here.
In the U.S. safe-injection sites wouldn't fly politically.

Instead, the city focuses on pouring its dollars into a coordinated
system that links detox, treatment and housing.

At the Portland Alternative Health Centre, Tony Corthell, a 49-year-old
man who just got out of jail and has been a heroin user for 26 years,
gets his daily acupuncture treatment. After, he'll go to a group
counselling session.

He lives in a hotel, connected to the centre, that is rigorously
alcohol- and drug-free, run by the same organization, a huge non-profit
social-service agency called Central City Concern, that operates the
treatment centre, along with the city's major detox, its only sobering
centre, and 750 units of drug-free housing.

On top of that, he earns money by working in a program, run by the
city's downtown business community, that employs homeless people to
sweep the streets.

Corthell is enthusiastic about the new direction his life is taking. The
counselling is more interactive than the usual 12-step programs, where
people give a talk about their individual problems but don't have a
conversation. And the housing and job help keep everything stable.

The people who work in the Central City system advocate strongly that
Vancouver adopt the approach that's worked for Portland.

"Buy one of your bad drug houses and turn it into alcohol- and drug-free
housing with a treatment centre nearby," says Eisen.

In spite of the emphasis on abstinence and going clean, however,
Portland treatment centres tend to be far more tolerant of drug users
who relapse than those in Vancouver.

There's also an acceptance that not everyone is ready to quit using
right away. People who go to the sobering centre are told about detox,
but not pushed. No one is ever turned away because they're using the
sobering centre chronically.

And while Central City Concern emphasizes the importance of its
drug-free housing, Harris said it also operates housing where it's
acknowledged that people are still using -- "wet" or "damp" housing as
opposed to dry.

Ultimately, people as disparate as Harris, Beckman, central precinct
police Commander Larry Findling and many others say that Portland's
push-pull approach is achieving a success that is eluding other cities.

It doesn't have the kind of open drug market any more that currently
exists on Vancouver's Hastings Street. The rate of HIV infection among
its drug users is low. And there's a public sense that the city has
control of its drug problem -- something that is missing in Vancouver.

But while there are some concrete results, part of the difference may be
perception rather than reality.

Drug statistics and people at ground level offer a slightly different
picture.

For example, Portland has the fastest-growing heroin-overdose death rate
in the United States.

The number of deaths has doubled over the past 10 years, reaching 230
for the Portland area in 1999, a phenomenon that has prompted national
news coverage. (The Vancouver region's drug-overdose death rate has been
about 150 a year and it dropped to 91 last year.)

For those who don't follow the statistics, the double suicide of a young
Portland couple two years ago focused public attention on the escalating
heroin epidemic in the city.

The man and woman, in their late 20s, hanged themselves from a downtown
bridge during rush hour in full view of commuters. The man, Michael
Douglas, left a 13-page journal detailing the couple's spiral into
heroin addiction.

As well, businesses that operate downtown know drugs are still in their
area.

In spite of a massive effort from Portland's downtown business
association to keep the downtown clean and orderly, the drug-free zones,
and the more comprehensive treatment system, everyone knows where to buy
drugs in the city.

Marijuana at the waterfront park. Crack in the strip next to that, in
Old Town. And heroin a few blocks up, in the Chinatown area.

Cyndi Foliz has worked in the heart of the drug market in Portland's Old
Town for eight years, as a sales clerk at Australian Originals.

The store, one of those surrounding Ankeny Square under the Burnside
Bridge, along with the Skidmore Fountain in the centre of the square,
are favourite place for dealers and users to hang out.

When someone has a fresh shipment of something, she sees a cluster of
20-30 people form. Otherwise, about a dozen hardcore users are regular
street features.

The store had to double its staff two years ago to try to keep
shoplifting to a controllable level.

Foliz said the area is quiet now because the police did a massive arrest
sweep over the past four weeks, but the scene has actually become worse
on her street.

"It's gone from the pothead muffinheads playing their drums to real
crackheads here. They'll try to steal stuff right in front of you. We've
seen a real increase in the last three years."

In spite of that, Foliz says, the owners like their location and plan to
stay. That's a sharp contrast to Vancouver, where Gastown and Chinatown
business owners say the drug activity is going to drive them out.

Foliz says the downtown business association's "Clean and Safe" program
helps. The association hires retired police officers who will come out
within five minutes of any business's call to disperse drug activity,
arrange rides to a homeless shelter or sobering centre, or deal with a
dispute.

But mainly, the owners stay because they're making money. The big
difference? Every Saturday in the non-winter months, the craft market
that's been a Portland highlight for the past 20 years draws thousands
of regular people to the area.

"That definitely drives the businesses down here," Foliz says.

Sharon Hepworth, at Incense Magic, across the square, from Australian
Originals, agrees.

The shoplifting is bad at her place, too.

People come in and take whatever they want, although she believes it
isn't always the druggies doing it.

The drug market goes away for a while when the police put pressure on,
but it's back the minute they're gone.

But she's doing all right in spite of that. "The Saturday market is what
does it."


Newshawk: weleng
Pubdate: Tue, 13 Feb 2001
Source: Vancouver Sun (CN BC)
Copyright: 2001 The Vancouver Sun
Contact: sunletters@pacpress.southam.ca
Fax: (604) 605-2323
Address: 200 Granville Street, Ste.#1, Vancouver BC V6C 3N3
Website: http://www.vancouversun.com/
Author: Frances Bula, Vancouver Sun