Displacement of Canada’s largest public illicit drug market in response to a police crackdown

10 May 2004

Law enforcement is often used in an effort to reduce the social, community and health-related harms of illicit drug use by injection drug users (IDUs). There are, however, few data on the benefits of such enforcement or on the potential harms. A large-scale police “crackdown” to control illicit drug use in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside provided us with an opportunity to evaluate the effect.

Download the article (PDF)

As part of our ongoing prospective cohort study of IDUs in Vancouver, we examined data collected from 244 IDUs in the 3 months before the police crackdown and from 142 IDUs in the 3 months after the start of the crackdown, on Apr. 7, 2003. All study subjects were active drug users. We also examined external data on needle exchanges and syringe disposal.

Results: The 2 groups of IDUs were statistically similar: they were mainly young (mean age 39 years) and male (63%), and they had injected illicit drugs for 13 years on average. Ethnic background and the proportion homeless were also similar. There were no statistically significant reported differences (all p > 0.1) in the street price of heroin, cocaine or “crack” in the 2 periods. In the 3-month periods before and after the crackdown, respectively, the rates of daily heroin injection were 27.9% and 26.8%, daily cocaine injection 28.7% and 27.5%, and daily crack use 59.4% and 60.6% (all p > 0.1). The proportions of study subjects receiving methadone treatment, 41.0% and 44.4% (p = 0.516), did not differ. However, the proportions reporting a change in where drugs were used, 22.5% and 33.8% (p < 0.05), and the proportions reporting a change in the neighbourhood of use because of police presence, 18.1% and 26.8% (p < 0.05), increased significantly.

Needle-exchange data confirmed that the community levels of drug use were unchanged. Disposal statistics demonstrated that the monthly average number of used syringes found on the streets outside the traditional area of drug use increased from 784 in the 3 months before Apr. 1 to 1253 in the subsequent 3 months (p = 0.002) and the monthly average number of used syringes found in public boxes for the safe disposal of syringes decreased from 865 to 502 (p = 0.018).

Interpretation: The effort to control illicit drug use did not alter the price of drugs or the frequency of use, nor did it encourage enrolment in methadone treatment programs. Several measures indicated displacement of injection drug use from the area of the crackdown into adjacent areas of the city, which has implications for both recruitment of new initiates into injection drug use and HIV prevention efforts.

In summary, we detected no reduction in drug-use frequency or drug price in response to a large-scale police crackdown in Vancouver’s DTES. Our results support anecdotal reports of increased public drug use and displacement of drug users, and they probably explain increases in drug-related sex-trade activity and crime in areas outside the DTES. The crackdown also increased the rates of unsafe syringe disposal and significantly reduced the proportion of syringes being returned to the city’s largest needle exchange. The displacement of the drug market to new areas has substantial public-health implications, including the potential for an increased risk of new initiates into injection drug use. Future enforcement strategies should be coordinated with expanded public-health and addiction-treatment strategies. Once addiction-treatment services are in place, we recommend that outreach services and supervised injection centres be evaluated in an effort to avoid the negative public-health consequences of drug-use displacement.

Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ), 170 (10)
May 11, 2004