Vancouver is the inversion capital of Canada. What Nietzsche called transvaluation blooms in full colour, where the absurd is reasonable, the perverse now sacred.
For example. The Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, better known as VANDU, headquartered at 380 East Hasting in the Downtown Eastside. To identify the majority of neighbourhood residents with VANDU is ignorant. To confuse VANDU with other activists is to diminish all activism. To call VANDU radical is to libel radicals worldwide. According to VANDU's "manifesto for a Drug User Liberation Movement" available online, people have the "right to obtain, prepare, and ingest drugs- to deal with psychological trauma or physical pain, or for pleasure or fun." This philosophy, enablement on steroids, undermines the basic tenets of drug rehabilitation in a neighbourhood steeped in crack, heroin and crystal meth.
Despite claims of bloated membership, VANDU is mainly Ann Livingston, longtime leader, whose handful of acolytes elbow and intimidate around the Downtown Eastside. Last month at city hall, a VANDU-led mob stormed council chambers to protest an East Hastings condo development called Sequel 138. According to a VANDU statement, the development will cause "disruption and displacement of drug markets" in the neighbourhood.
A rogue group, you say. Unaffiliated, without backing from any reputable source. Think again.
Since 1999, VANDU has fed from the public trough. Last year, Vancouver Coastal Health, your public health authority, gave VANDU $250,000 and another $250,000 in 2012, not including $40,913 for VANDU's participation in VCH's crack pipe giveaway program. Why VANDU needs $40,913 to hand out crack pipes remains a mystery. Funding from city hall ($20,000 last year, $20,000 this year) pales in comparison. But here's the kicker. Since 2006, VANDU headquarters on East Hastings has operated without permits, a prerequisite for any business, non-profit or hotdog stand in the city. According to documents obtained by the Courier through Freedom of Information legislation, in February 2007 "after receiving complaints from area residents," city staff ordered VANDU to apply for a development permit. VANDU sought and received a 60-day reprieve, which expired on June 13, 2007. Since then, nothing. Well, almost nothing.
Email transcripts from early 2012 (also obtained through FOI) include conversations between Livingston and Vision Coun. Andrea Reimer. Livingston complains about "vending" bylaw enforcement in the Downtown Eastside, Reimer says it's "frustrating to hear it's still happening." Nothing about VANDU's outstanding permit situation.
Incidentally, according to the Province newspaper, during last month's VANDU-led protest at city hall, Reimer brokered a "30-minute informal information session" for protesters to speak even though Sequel 138 wasn't on the agenda. Next election, Reimer should run a pro-VANDU campaign so voters know where her sympathies lie.
Seventeen additional pages of VANDU-related email transcripts-four involving Mayor Gregor Robertson-are redacted, deemed off limits to public eyes.
Back on East Hastings, Manzoor Hussain, an immigrant from Pakistan, stands behind the counter at S. Amen Foods, a small convenience store next door to VANDU. Tall and burly with a black tuft of hair, Hussain points to the business licence hanging on his wall. He renews it yearly-$327 in 2012. Mention VANDU to Hussain, then stand back. "I complain so many times to the [VANDU] management," he says, all hands and gestures. "It's one thing after another."
To swell its ranks, VANDU offers $3 stipends to supporters who line up outside Hussain's store, creating a human barrier for his customers. During one incident, Hussain's front window was smashed. It cost him $600 to replace it. "I have to follow the rules, but they get away with anything they want. Why?"
Why, indeed. City hall won't say. But consider this. According to a spokesperson from the city's development services department, during any permit application process, city staff must consider the applicant's "impact on potential neighbours." Most probably, any honest analysis of VANDU's impact on the 300 block of East Hastings would result in a permit denial, probable court case and eventual eviction. Apparently, that just won't do. When it comes to city permits, your friendly neighbourhood prodope lobbyists need not apply.