Pubdate: Sun, 21 Jun 2009
Source: Victoria Times-Colonist (CN BC)
Copyright: 2009 Times Colonist
Author: Mike Smyth, Canwest News Service


One-Time Aide To The Premier Became A Homeless Hustler On Victoria Streets

He was one of the legislature's brightest young political staffers
during Premier Gordon Campbell's first term in office: Smart, popular,
good-looking, a sharp dresser and a sharper talker, Marshall Smith
seemed to have it all.

Cruising the corridors of power with an easy confidence that belied
his 28 years, he'd whisper advice to cabinet ministers one minute,
spin a scrum of reporters the next, then crack up his fellow Liberal
insiders with an always-ready joke.

"The minister of social planning," they nicknamed him, because Smith
was the guy who organized all the after-work parties. In any number of
bars near Government Street in Victoria, you'd find the ministerial
aide whooping it up long after the legislature had shut for the night.

"I was on top of the world and having a blast," he recalls now, even
travelling to Prague with Campbell for the announcement of Vancouver's
winning Olympic bid. He was introduced to Henry Kissinger and
hobnobbed with Olympic glitterati.

Then it all came crashing down, starting one fateful night in

"I was in a bar and someone offered me a line of cocaine," said Smith,
now 36. "I did it, I liked it and I wanted more. But it was the
beginning of the end."

He had managed a serious drinking problem for years, but the cocaine
was different. Its grip was instantaneous and relentless. It soon led
to an even more vicious drug: crystal methamphetamine.

"I was hooked and couldn't stop," he said. "It was too powerful and I
wasn't interested in getting help, only in getting drugs."

Quickly enslaved to a $2,000-a-week habit of cocaine, meth and booze,
his once promising career unravelled rapidly. He was fired, lost his
apartment when the rent money ran out, lost the many friends who
couldn't believe his sudden and shocking transformation.

One night, he slung a knapsack over his shoulder and drifted through
the streets of Victoria in a drug-induced haze, snorting coke and
smoking meth all night, ending up sprawled in a doorway as the garbage
trucks rolled by. It was his first night as a homeless addict -- a
cycle that would go on for the next three years.

From 2004 to 2007, the one-time rising star of government became a
sketchy street-level hustler, dealing drugs to get the money to feed
his habit, sleeping in Vancouver parks and alleys, and playing
cat-and-mouse with police who knew all about his former life in the
loftiest circles of political power.

He lost count of how many times he was arrested, eventually doing two
stretches in jail for trafficking. He got mixed up in the most
dangerous side of the drug world and several times feared for his life.

"I passed out in a house one night and four guys burst in with
crowbars to rob the place," he said. "They broke my knee, cheek and
hand. One guy jammed a crowbar right through my foot and into the
hardwood floor. I barely managed to pull it out and I went running
down the street at 5 a.m., bleeding on a broken knee."

He was free on bail at the time. Picked up by police again, the
incident led to his first drug conviction and a seven-month stretch in
Victoria's Wilkinson Road jail, where another former iteration of his
life ironically circled back on him.

Before he got into government work, Smith pursued a career in law
enforcement. He studied criminal forensic science at the B.C.
Institute of Technology and worked for several years as a prison
guard, including at Wilkinson Road.

"Now the guards I used to work with were guarding me," he said. "And
the prisoners I used to guard were my fellow inmates."

Some of the more hard-core prisoners didn't take kindly to a former
"hack" suddenly appearing on their side of the bars. One of them broke
his jaw. But even that didn't shock Smith out of his ruinous cravings.

"When I got out, I went straight back to the street, right back to
using and dealing," he said. "I lived for six months in a steel
shipping container under the Granville Street bridge. Dropped down to
125 pounds. Some people reached out, but I was beyond help."

Those people included his well-to-do parents, who worked in the B.C.
film-production business and provided what Smith calls a loving,
stable upbringing in an upper-class Victoria neighbourhood and a
private-school education.

"They tried, but I told them not to try. I felt guilty and ashamed and
didn't want to see them. I saw everything on the street when it comes
to family: From people with no family at all, to parents putting
themselves in danger trying to rescue their kids. In my case, I told
my parents to stay away."

He said the lowest moment came during a botched robbery in a Vancouver

"These guys came in and I had something they wanted. One held a
shotgun to my head. That was the bottom for me. I thought, 'I can't
live this life anymore.'"

Smith entered rehab in 2007. Free and clear of drugs and alcohol for
two years, he accepted a post as director of a Prince George rehab

"I lost many wonderful friends and fantastic people in my life," he
said. "Hopefully, I can one day earn their respect again."
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