So could a lot of other North American cities, but they don’t have to.
The other day someone asked me if I had seen a video on YouTube called “Seattle is Dying”. They said that there was an activist in this video, who had made up a list of the 100 highest offending drug addicts who were causing the most trouble in Seattle neighbourhoods.
For the last year and a half I have been compiling a number of crime statistics for the city of Calgary, breaking down some by neighbourhood, and going back about 8 years or so. I was interested to see what this was all about, so I looked it up on YouTube and gave it a watch. The video is about so much more than what one activist in Seattle is trying to do.
A cautionary tale.
It is a documentary by journalist Eric Johnson of network affiliate KOMO-TV in Seattle, and tells of the crisis Seattle now finds itself in due to drug addiction and homelessness, and frankly I think it’s worthy of a Peabody award. His journalism is of the kind to which I aspire myself, impactful, compelling. and truthful. It is well researched, and very well presented.
There are many scenes in the documentary that could well have been filmed in San Francisco or Vancouver. Camps of drug addicts, open air drug dealing, people shooting up heroin on the street and occasionally overdosing, streets littered with trash and human waste. Over the last couple years San Fran has gained the reputation of the poop capital of the United States, with streets and sidewalks treated like open air toilets by the city’s homeless. Those streets and sidewalks, also littered with used syringes and empty heroin bags, are a biohazard and presents a risk to anyone entering the area.
This is happening now in Seattle, on streets that were once trendy. The effect on local business has been devastating. Apart from driving away customers, drug addicts are also responsible for millions of dollars worth of merchandise loss every year due to theft. The police have very few tools to use in order to combat the problem, and are often punished for using them. Business owners are being forced to either close down or relocate to a different city such as in Bellevue.
The matter of minimum wage.
It wasn’t mentioned in the documentary at all, but Seattle has a $15/hour minimum wage ($16 for companies with more than 500 employees.) The effect of the increase in the minimum wage has been another hit to businesses operating in areas with high drug use. I am mentioning this because Alberta foolishly went down that road, and in that respect has that in common with Seattle at the moment.
This issue is yet another example of how some people choose to deal with a problem in a misguided manner. Rather than making life better for those benefitting from the increase, the result has been that everybody in fact loses out. It is merely a lazy and simplistic attempt to improve the lot of those living in poverty, and yet another means of pandering to a base.
Incidentally, the minimum wage in the rest of Washington State was $12/hr as of January 1st, 2019 and will increase to $13.50 in 2020.
Meanwhile, here in Calgary.
There has been a significant increase in the amount of crime in Calgary since the Great Petroleum Crash of 2014, a lot of it fueled by addiction. It’s hard to say exactly how many people here are out of work here, the unemployment statistics don’t tell the full story. Many in Calgary have been out of a job for two years or more and the number of single males collecting provincial income support benefits have exploded since then.
The scenes here aren’t as bad as in Seattle, but there is still a noticeable increase in the number of homeless and there seems to be a lot more drug use occurring out in the open, and I’m not talking about cannabis. In neighbourhoods that had never seen such activity before, addicts are now injecting drugs in plain view of the public, and petty thefts like shoplifting are increasing year after year.
There has been a very noticeable increase in such activity in the Beltline, near the Sheldon Chumir medical centre and the safe injection site located there. This has been a hot-button topic of discussion lately, as residents and business owners in the area grow more and more frustrated at yet another problem created by city hall.
I have heard from different sources that heroin is easier to get in Calgary than it has ever been, and by all indications it isn’t exactly difficult to lay your hands on crystal meth either. Although it is probably just as easy to acquire, and while still popular, crack appears to have lost some of its cachet.
Business and property taxes took a huge jump this year, businesses in Alberta are dealing with a $15/hr minimum wage, and in various parts of the city, stores are seeing more and more merchandise walk out the door in the hands of shoplifters. Meanwhile, police resources already stretched thin are being cut, as the clown council tries to come up with ways to shave $60 million from the budget.
What can be done?
As I mentioned earlier, an activist in Seattle has compiled a list of the 100 most active drug addicted offenders plaguing Seattle neighbourhoods. The average number of offenses in this group is over 30 and they range from petty theft to serious assaults and attempted rape. Johnson even encountered a few of them on the streets.
In the U.S. it’s much easier for the average citizen to obtain information that is on the public record than it is here in Canada, in fact I don’t think that a private citizen would be able to get such information here. A member of the press working for a recognized media outlet might be able to, but not the average Joe, or Derek in this instance.
Now assuming I were able to get this information and print it, how exactly would it be helpful? Sure it would let the public know what was going on and that these people could potentially be casing their neighbourhoods, but that would be about it. Publicly shaming these people wouldn’t work, as was evidenced by a conversation Johnson had with one of these “frequent flyers” who seemed rather proud of his dubious accomplishment.
In a perfect world law enforcement would target these individuals and make every effort to get them off the streets, but of course this would mean having courts that actually dispensed justice, rather than meaningless hand slaps before setting the offenders loose upon society again.
What about Providence?
Providence is the second largest city in the smallest American state, and it seems to have found a solution that works. The most amazing thing about this is that it something that can be done absolutely anywhere, at least anywhere that politicians have common sense that is.
There, when drug addicts are convicted of their crimes they actually go to prison, and they aren’t just whiling away their time either. Addicts are given one of three medications of their choice; methadone, suboxone, or naltrexone. They will likely be on this medication for the rest of their lives, but there are millions of adults who also have to be on medications for life, like those taking blood pressure medication, or drugs to lower their cholesterol.
A lot of people will make the argument that we would only be trading in one addiction for another. Theoretically I suppose this is true, but I will rationalize it by saying this, the person on the medication would be a productive member of society. They would be able to take care of themselves and would no longer be a menace to society or a drain on its resources.
They also receive intensive counselling that continues after they are released, and learn valuable employment skills to help them find stable, full-time employment once they are back in society. According to the warden of the prison that runs this program, the success rate is 93%. That’s 93% of the people who have been through the program found employment and have reintegrated back into society successfully as productive members of it.
Safe injection sites aren’t the answer.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for harm reduction and saving lives, but by having places like this all we are really doing is allowing permissiveness to take hold. The message that is being sent is that it is fine to do drugs, so long as you use a clean needle everytime. Hell, you can even OD and there will be someone there to bring you back to life in the event that the dragon you’ve been chasing should decide to turn on you.
But, this is Canada, where federal inmates will soon be able to slam junk into their veins in a safe, supervised environment. Yes, our government has reached a new level of ludicrousness with this one. Not only are they condoning drug use in prison, they are encouraging criminals to commit more serious crimes si that they can do federal time, and enjoy the perks they wouldn’t get in a provincial jail.
It also doesn’t make much sense to give law enforcement more money to combat the problem if the courts aren’t going to do anything other than slap addicts on the wrist and send them on their merry way again. It’s frustrating for police, lowering their morale, and is nothing but a total waste of money. I can only imagine the frustration felt by police officers, and this frustration is clearly evident in an anonymous questionnaire that officers of the Seattle PD completed.
Amongst the responses to our questionnaire one anonymous Seattle police officer said there has to be some sort of intervention to break the cycle or people will continue to do what they do. The addict won’t quit because it has become too easy for them to use and the dealer won’t quit as the consequences of getting caught are minimal. Another said Seattle needs leaders who are willing to stand up for what is right and by doing so will ultimately help those who can’t help themselves and hold accountable those who are hiding behind tents.Seattle Is Dying
They say that things started to get really bad in Seattle after police stopped issuing misdemeanor summonses for things like disorderly conduct and a range of other complaints. These would come with a fine of under $40 and would become felonies if the fines weren’t paid.
It’s the broken window theory in action. Little things, left unchecked, will ultimately lead to bigger and more problematic things. Things that become harder and harder to fix the longer they are left to fester. Eventually criminals openly mock the law, laughing at police who are left powerless to do their job.
Unless someone contacted for low-level amounts of drug has a warrant they’re not taken to jail. They know this and have no problem using in the open. Drug dealers have caught on and have changed the amount they keep on them. It is currently impossible to combat the open-air drug market in the city. That officer was referring to the fact that in King County three grams of heroin or meth won’t get you prosecuted or probably even arrested. It’s unofficial policy. It’s only the much larger quantities, say 20 grams, that get prosecuted and the dealers and the users know it. Three grams of heroin by the way, is equal to thirty doses. One officer summed it all up like this, ‘let’s spend the millions of dollars on mandatory inpatient treatment programs instead of making excuses for their addiction and/or crimes. The option should be treatment or jail. The cycle has to be intervened on or it will never end.Anonymous Seattle Police Officer, Seattle is Dying
We have a choice.
Even though Seattle might be dying, there is still a chance that it can be brought back to health and the same can be said of San Francisco and Vancouver. Calgary and other cities also have the chance to avoid this fate, but it will take politicians who are brave and possessed of common sense, something that is sorely lacking not only in Calgary but in Ottawa at the moment.
We are not at imminent risk of having a tent city of drug addicted homeless pop up on the banks of the Bow river or on Prince’s Island tomorrow, but if things continue as they currently are, the day will eventually come where this does happen. We find ourselves on the brink of a disaster, and the choices that are made in the near future by our politicians at all three levels of government will determine whether or not this happens.
There are entirely too many politicians who wouldn’t go along with an idea such as this, it is counter to what their notion of compassion is, For them, compassion compassion comes in the form of enabling the addict rather than doing something that will treat the addiction.
There will be others who might support the idea but are too afraid to do so publicly, while others just don’t have the fortitude to fight for much of anything beyond getting re-elected. They will say that there is no possible way something like this could happen here.
I say that anything is possible, and that where there’s a will, there’s a way. What we need now is for more politicians to have that will. The fate of our major urban centres is riding on it.