The number of charges for cocaine possession and trafficking in Vancouver have plummeted by almost half what they were five years ago.
Statistics supplied to the Courier from the Vancouver Police Department show 1,018 fewer charges for cocaine from 2008 to 2012.
The dramatic drop went from 2,082 charges in 2008 to 1,064 in 2012. The most significant decrease in that five-year span occurred in 2011, with 970 charges recorded.
The decrease comes as drug researchers are noticing what Dr. Thomas Kerr of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS described as an “explosion” in crack cocaine smoking.
“We’ve seen a massive increase in crack cocaine smoking — like huge,” said Kerr, who has co-authored studies on crack cocaine use. “In Vancouver, the major unaddressed issue is crack cocaine smoking.”
The majority of cocaine charges over the five-year span were for possession, including last year, where 664 were for possession and 400 for trafficking.
The statistics don’t include how many charges led to convictions in court. Nor do they indicate the number of cases referred to the city’s drug treatment or community courts, which offer alternatives to jail for suspects seeking treatment for addiction.
Sgt. Randy Fincham, a VPD media liaison officer, said the decrease in cocaine charges can be largely attributed to the department’s shift in addressing the city’s drug problem.
Referring to the department’s drug policy, Fincham said the VPD has adopted a “low level enforcement” approach when it comes to arresting drug users for “simple possession” of narcotics.
Fincham said the department considers these cases as primarily a health issue but will take enforcement action when warranted.
“It’s recognizing that the consumption of illegal narcotics is, in some cases, a health concern and it may not best be just served by a police or criminal response,” he said.
The department is on record of supporting the so-called four pillars strategy first introduced by former mayor Philip Owen more than a decade ago.
The principles of the strategy are enforcement, treatment, prevention and harm reduction. The strategy’s aim is to reduce public order while responding to health concerns of drug users.
“We are more successful using these four approaches than we are just strictly using the approach of criminal apprehension or putting these people into a court system which may or may not be prepared or appropriate to treat something that is viewed as a medical concern,” Fincham said.
The department, he added, continues to focus on street-level drug dealers and organized crime. The result has been fewer shootings, gang murders and an overall reduction in violent crime.
He also noted a shift in the drug of choice on the street such as crystal methamphetamine can also have an effect on whether charges for cocaine and other drugs increase or decrease.
While Kerr and Vancouver Coastal Health don’t have any estimate on the number of crack smokers in the city, he pointed out many injection drug users also smoke crack. The health agency says there are up to 14,000 injection drug users in Vancouver.
As the Courier reported last week, the health agency is expected to continue its distribution of sanitary crack smoking kits because of evidence the kits have led to less sharing of smoking supplies and a reduction in burns and cuts caused by unsanitary and brittle equipment.
Since December 2011, the agency distributed 150,000 kits in the city, largely in the Downtown Eastside. An evaluation report on the experiment is expected to be released soon.
Dr. Patricia Daly, the chief medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health, said there was no agreement with police to back off on arresting crack cocaine smokers during the experiment.
“There was never any agreement that they wouldn’t enforce the Criminal Code — that’s their job,” Daly said.