Pubdate: Thu, 01 Nov 2012
Source: Vancouver Magazine (CN BC)
Copyright: 2012 Vancouver Magazine
Author: Paul Webster


Backed by a growing roster of politicians, health officers, and legal
experts, a single beat cop blows the whistle on prohibition

For all the hype, says Const. David Bratzer, the life of a downtown
cop is about wordplay more often than gunplay. As the scores of drug
offenders who've served jail time at his insistence will attest, his
main weapon isn't his service revolver, it's polite, persistent
persuasion. As he unrolls his six-foot frame from a floatplane in
Vancouver harbour on a humid summer morning, that's a weapon he plans
to level once again at the very drug laws he's charged with enforcing.
"It's tough for a cop to admit," he says, heading down the wharf while
buttoning his charcoal jacket, "but our laws just don't make sense."

Today's plan is to sell that message around town as forcefully as
possible. Bratzer, 35, serves with the Victoria police department, but
he is also a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based group Law
Enforcement Against Prohibition. Thanks largely to his relentless
campaigning in recent years, LEAP is starting to gather momentum in
B.C.: today's first task is to open a Canadian bank account and
deposit $5,000 in seed money from American donors. Then he's heading
to West Vancouver to meet Dr. Evan Wood, a UBC researcher who also
believes drug prohibition does more harm than good in criminalizing
what is in large measure a mental health issue. Together, they have an
11 a.m. appointment with John Weston, MP for West Vancouver-Sunshine
Coast and a member of the Conservative caucus that last March enacted
the toughest drug prohibitions in Canadian history, increasing federal
drug enforcement budgets while cutting funds for treatment programs.
Next, he's scheduled to ! meet with Darrell Mussatto, mayor of North
Vancouver. In between, there will be time for a quick lunch with
Martin Millerchip, editor of the North Shore News. Tomorrow morning,
he'll be back in uniform. "You could say I lead a double life,"
Bratzer muses while heading over the Lions Gate Bridge, "but I don't.
It's not inconsistent to enforce drug prohibitions while criticizing
them. It's my duty to do both."

Standing in the morning sunshine on the sidewalk out front of Weston's
office in a low-rise commercial building on 17th Street, Bratzer
quickly summarizes his speaking points. Honed in scores of meetings
with powerbrokers across North America, his policy advice is concise:
politicians, having hugely oversold tough-on-crime messages to voters
spooked by violent crime, need to take a more responsible approach.
Law enforcement officers across British Columbia are weary of imposing
drug prohibitions that devour the bulk of police, court, and prison
budgets yet have negligible impact on the complex factors propelling
drug use. For a start, Bratzer argues, marijuana-which 35 percent of
people aged 15 to 24 in B.C. are estimated to have smoked in the last
year-should be decriminalized and commercialized within the same sort
of regulatory frameworks governing booze and tobacco. Tax B.C.'s
430,000 pot smokers, Bratzer will urge Weston (who in March voted to
force judges ! to issue mandatory minimum jail sentences for petty pot
offenders) and use the resulting government income to fund programs to
rescue people from drug-related suffering. Only barbarians, his logic
goes, would criminalize people suffering from mental-health
afflictions such as addiction. "For 40 years we've waged a war on
drugs here in B.C. and around the world that has flatly failed, even
while creating immense carnage and misery," Bratzer sums up as Wood,
also wearing a grey suit, arrives. "As so many police officers will
privately tell you, prohibition itself is by far the biggest part of
what makes drugs so incredibly dangerous to so many people. The time
is long overdue for police officers to start saying so publicly."

A few hours later, over lunch with Millerchip downstairs from the News
office, Bratzer summarizes his encounter with Weston before the
discussion turns to the endless community violence that, like backwash
from a battleship, follows the narcotics trade. "Prohibition is a
relic from a bygone era," Bratzer intones with the insistence of a man
accustomed to courtroom arm-twisting. "In the 1920s, alcohol
prohibition gave criminal groups massive liquor profits and unleashed
a wave of violent carnage. These days, prohibition of pot and the
other illegal drugs causes exponentially more violence."

Instead of stemming the supply of drugs, Bratzer argues, prohibition
passes control to the highly efficient, ruthless, and violent
organized-crime groups that vacuum up billions in profits. These
groups have fenced off a sizable share of the income from B.C.'s $7
billion pot industry and big chunks are reinvested in additional toxic
activities, including trade in cocaine, heroin, and other highly
destructive drugs; and the often-interlinked sex trade, human
trafficking, and more traditional mafia-style pursuits such as
extortion and contract killing. Given the explosion in money from the
pot industry, it's not surprising that between 1997 and 2009 the
number of annual gang-related homicides in B.C. nearly doubled to 43
while the proportion of all homicides in B.C. attributable to gangs
increased from 21 percent to 34. After Portugal dropped all drug
prohibitions in 2001, it achieved reductions in drug use, drug-related
harms, and criminal justice overcrowding. "! Millions and millions of
families the world over could be spared the hellish grief of
addiction. Let's make criminals choose between starvation and getting
honest jobs."

Bratzer's education in the contradictions surrounding Canada's
drug-enforcement industry started in 2003, when, after training as an
air traffic controller in Ontario, he switched flight paths and signed
on with the Victoria police. With two brothers on the force, it was an
easy fit. His first job was in the force's cell block, a tiny outpost
of the vast legal catch net that incarcerates nearly 50,000 Canadians
for drug offences annually (with Vancouver and Victoria consistently
topping national lists). Canadian prisons, he quickly realized, are
holding pens for huge numbers of people sideswiped by addiction and
other mental-health problems. Far from offering effective help, they
seem built to reinforce drug problems. As John Farley, a Vancouver
physician who works in prisons, notes, they offer addicts meagre help,
and, because one in four inmates inject drugs often using shared
needles (needle exchanges and other buffers against HIV and hepatitis
transmission a! re prohibited in many jails), provincial and federal
prisons actually create health risks to society.

Early in his career, Bratzer moved to street patrol. The new job
offered even broader lessons about the often self-serving dynamics of
drug enforcement. Victoria, for all its touristic charm, hosts a
downtown drug scene smaller in scale but strikingly similar to
Vancouver's. Patrolling the gritty edges of Chinatown, Bratzer began
to appreciate the interconnected web of tragedies so often awaiting
people addicted to hard drugs. Charged with quelling an epidemic of
public intravenous injection viewed by politicians and business
leaders as a "nuisance problem" hurting tourism, he recognized that
policing strategies-no matter how they are executed-cannot resolve
problems deeply rooted in mental illness. Corralling people into back
alleys won't heal them or prevent them from overdosing, he concluded.
Nor will it reduce their risk of HIV and hepatitis. As for arresting
them? He'd seen how prisons inflame addiction. As his experiences
widened, his perspectives shifted:! "It was a gradual evolution in
which I began to question the logic of the whole purpose of drug

Over several years, Bratzer became convinced that prohibition, by
blocking rational controls on the supply and use of drugs, supports an
ocean of related misery. He'd also discovered that, concealed behind
the official messages emanating from Canadian police departments,
large numbers of serving officers oppose prohibition-albeit in secret.
"Among their peers, cops find it difficult to admit," he explains,
"but get a cop alone and talk one-on-one and you'll be surprised what
they say: large numbers of officers will admit that prohibition is a

In 2008, with encouragement from LEAP and inspired by Vince Cain, a
former RCMP superintendent and B.C. chief coroner who wrote a
path-breaking 1994 report for the provincial government recommending
decriminalization with law enforcement funding channelled to treatment
programs for addicts, Bratzer went public in an interview with
Times-Colonist's Jody Patterson. "That proved very controversial with
my colleagues," he remembers. "Some thought I was in league with drug

In November 2009 he passed the point of no return, breaking ranks with
the Victoria force by travelling to Ottawa to tell the Standing Senate
Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs that the Harper
government's plan to stiffen drug laws was misguided. "There was some
push back from within senior ranks in the force," he explains
dispassionately. "But my union has always said I'm free to speak. So
that's what I do."

Right now, that frank talk is happening in an overfurnished portable
behind North Van City Hall. "For every offender doing time for a
serious crime like trafficking," Bratzer emphasizes as mayor Mussatto
nods enthusiastically, "there are literally thousands of people in
jail for totally petty crimes that stem from drug use." Most of these
are committed by addicts seeking cash to pay the outrageous prices
that result from letting crime groups control drug supplies, Bratzer
posits. If drugs were decriminalized under tight government control,
much of the vast budgets allocated to prisons could be used to fund
treatment programs-which at present receive an estimated one-30th as
much funding as enforcement. Mussatto emphasizes how much he agrees,
and the two men, suddenly relaxed, plunge into a discussion of B.C.
police personalities. "This meeting could be shorter than I  figured,"
Bratzer grins. Soon enough, Mussatto is on the phone arranging a lift
to get Bratzer ! down to the Seabus terminal.

Bratzer-one of only four working police officers among North America's
1.1 million cops willing to speak publicly against the laws that
buttress an estimated $50 billion in annual spending on police,
courts, and prisons in the U.S. and Canada-isn't just contrarian; his
views are provocative to the point of recklessness. (The other three
work in Ontario, Maryland, and Texas.) Among police officers, he's
seen as either a Gandhi or a Judas-or a bit of both: As one senior
Vancouver cop said about Bratzer's tactics, "Maybe throwing a can of
gasoline on the fire isn't the best way to  operate." But nobody would
deny his courage. As Evan Wood says, "What David is doing is extremely
rare and it is also extremely brave. He's speaking truth to power."

As commander of the Vancouver police department's downtown division,
Insp. Scott Thompson enforces Canada's drug laws in one of the world's
most scrutinized criminal enclaves. Home to 15,000 addicts, the
Downtown Eastside attracts the ire of politicians and enforcement
bosses in Ottawa and Washington. In New York, U.N. officials routinely
denounce it as a weeping sore of planetary proportions. With so many
spotlights glaring at him, Thompson is under intense pressure to clean
up Canada's drug crime capital. But confronting drug crime is not
Thompson's only concern. "What I'm dealing with in this job," he
explains on a recent morning in his cramped office at the foot of the
Granville Street bridge, "is a massive epidemic of mental illness that
requires huge new public health resources."

By nature both meditative and talkative, Thompson views Vancouver's
divisive drug dilemmas across three decades of service, starting as a
beat cop; over time he became closely involved in fashioning the
strategies that have transformed the VPD into the only major police
force in North America consistently supportive of scientific
investigations predicated on staying-if only partially, temporarily,
and experimentally-prohibition.

With strong encouragement from City Hall and virulent opposition from
the Harper government and the Canadian Police Association, the VPD has
supported the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act-exempted Insite
supervised-injection facility, where government-funded employees
monitor the consumption of illicit drugs-mostly heroin and cocaine-in
a government-financed centre. The VPD also supports two trials
investigating the merits of government-controlled and -financed heroin
distribution: the North American Opiate Medicalization Investigation,
and the Study to Assess Longer-term Opioid Medication

The VPD also collaborated with community groups like the Vancouver
Area Network of Drug Users to buttress legal changes, including a
study that in 2003 helped shift governance around the sales of rice
wine, a common killer of co-addicted users in the Downtown Eastside.
(See "The Fine Print," page 58.) Support for scientific investigation,
however, is not the same as support for legal change: as Thompson
scrupulously emphasizes, the VPD skirts public discussion of
decriminalization. But does his support for Insite and the heroin
studies indicate a willingness to at least investigate
decriminalization? "Yes," Thompson says cautiously, "I guess so."

This doesn't mean the VPD isn't aggressively battling drugs, Thompson
stresses. "The vast majority of our resources involve controlling
illicit substances," he says, noting that enforcement is
"frighteningly" expensive and that one-third of all police calls for
service in Vancouver involved one or more persons apparently suffering
from a mental-health issue. "When you are dealing with an addicted
population who may be self-medicating for mental illness, it raises
questions about the best use of resources." Which is why police focus
their efforts on non-addicted traffickers. In large measure, the force
already disregards prohibition by only selectively enforcing laws
against possession. With rates of cannabis-related arrests-and related
police workloads-in Canada rising from 39,000 in 1990 to 65,000 in
2009, law enforcement officials are starting to seek work-arounds.
"The courts have sent us a clear message that unless there are
extenuating circumstances, there ! is no great reason to press
possession charges," he explains. "At some level, this represents
support for anti-prohibition views."

But police are very experience-based. "If we want to go to a
[government] regulated model, what would it look like? For us this is
a very difficult area to go, and I've yet to find a forum where we can
discuss it." Unlike clear-cut issues such as drinking-and-driving,
where police unflinchingly pushed for legal changes without risking
political blow back, decriminalization remains the solution that dare
not speak its name. "We're watching and waiting, looking to see what
our appropriate role in this discussion would be," Thompson explains.
"If it was a formal request from government to discuss the pros and
cons of prohibition, we'd say, 'Sure.' "

The chances of Thompson getting that call from local government are
increasing greatly. In April, a coalition of eight B.C. mayors
including Vancouver's Gregor Robertson, North Vancouver's Mussatto,
and Burnaby's Derek Corrigan called on Premier Christy Clark,
Opposition leader Adrian Dix, and B.C. Conservative Party leader John
Cummins to support the regulation and taxation of cannabis. So far,
the response from provincial politicians has been mute. The mayors
cited an Angus Reid poll showing 54 percent of people in B.C. support
this idea; Vancouver city council subsequently endorsed a motion to
support this call in a unanimous vote. "This is not a partisan issue,"
Robertson explained at the time. "Widespread access to marijuana for
our youth, grow-ops that provide funds for organized crime, and
significant costs to taxpayers for enforcement are all compelling
reasons to re-examine our failed approach to prohibition."

The mayors were in part emboldened by the work of Stop the Violence
BC, a multistage campaign against prohibition led by Evan Wood that
recruited backing from a powerhouse array, including Louise Arbour,
the former Supreme Court of Canada judge who once headed the
International Court of Justice; and the former presidents of Mexico,
Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Switzerland, and Poland. Sitting politicians
are also starting to chime in: in May, Colombian president Juan Manuel
Santos, Guatemalan president Otto Fernando Perez Molina, and Costa
Rican president Laura Chinchilla strongly signalled their support for
rethinking the war on drugs, which, since it was launched by Richard
Nixon in 1970, has funnelled at least a trillion dollars into the law
enforcement industry in North America alone. In recent years at least
55,000 Mexicans have been killed by drug-fuelled violence even as
Mexican heroin production tripled. Over the past decade, the U.N.
estimates, the number o! f narcotics users worldwide has increased by
50 percent.

Alongside its efforts to recruit international supporters, Stop the
Violence BC is also scaling the province's political and law
enforcement firmaments, securing endorsements from two former premiers
and four former attorneys general, and a host of legal and public
health experts. "As someone who was the chief law officer of the
government of British Columbia I know that when we think of using law
enforcement as a tool we usually think that it`s going to make a
problem go away," explained Geoff Plant, who served as B.C. attorney
general between 2001 and 2005, at a February press conference. "When
you talk about cannabis, the effect of law enforcement is to make the
problem worse in almost every respect."

Minutes later, John McKay the former U.S. attorney for western
Washington who convicted Mark Emery, Vancouver's "prince of pot", took
the podium to argue that decriminalization would raise as much as $65
billion for U.S. public health, drug education, and treatment while
undercutting a key business platform for the underground narcotics
industry, and the "enormously potent and dangerous environment which
is created and maintained by our law enforcement."

Stop the Violence BC kick-started its local efforts with an
endorsement from the Health Officers' Council of B.C., which for
decades has put pressure on politicians to tackle drugs as a
mental-health issue rather than a crime problem. Last year the council
issued a report calling on politicians to consider modelling drug
control on the provincial government alcohol monopoly ("without the
product promotional aspects").

But getting the medical community on side is the easy part, says the
province's chief medical officer of health, Perry Kendall, whose
office walls in Victoria are checkered with testimonials to his
efforts to reform Canadian policies. The tough part will be the
police. For them, he explains, although they "largely agree that drug
prohibitions are futile, they also know that they keep them employed."

Despite all of the support from retired law enforcement leaders from
across the province and around the world, however, only two working
law enforcement professionals-Bratzer, and Ian Tully-Barr, a crown
counsel with the Attorney General of B.C.-have publicly joined Evan
Wood's coalition against prohibition.

Taking on the colossus of the global enforcement machine is indeed an
isolating role, Bratzer reflects as he waits for the flight back to
the drug-fighting trenches in Victoria. "Policing is an inward-looking
culture and this doesn't win me any popularity contests," he muses.
"But public debate is important and the public support I've received
is what sustains me. And let's face it, the status quo in policing is
not always the best approach."
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