Police Crackdown Prompts Complaints in Vancouver

A police crackdown on drug dealers in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside is exacerbating the neighborhood's AIDS and hepatitis epidemic by driving addicts away from needle exchange programs and other services, a Human Rights Watch report says. Titled Operation Torpedo, the crackdown aimed at getting dealers off the streets has been somewhat effective, "but at a high cost," according to the report issued Wednesday by the New York-based rights group. Its findings were echoed by activists, health care workers and addicts in the city, which is known for its progressive drug policies.

Illegal arrests and searches, excessive force and other abuses by police threaten the already dire situation in the 15-block neighborhood frequented by more than 5,000 addicts, the report said. "Vancouver risks making its HIV/AIDS crisis much worse and it's already the worst on the continent," said Joanne Csete, director of the HIV/AIDS Program of Human Rights Watch.

Vancouver police deny abusing their power, maintaining the goal is to rid the area of pushers while keeping addicts near the services they need. "This whole report lacks credibility," Inspector Doug LePard said. The crackdown is part of a "four pillar" drug policy that helped elect Mayor Larry Campbell, a former police officer and coroner, last year.

On streets littered with orange needle caps and stinking of urine, addicts and those trying to help them complain of police intimidation. Rather than going to needle exchange sites, addicts fearful of police confrontation use dirty needles, said Chantal Brunet, a self-described recovering heroin addict. "It's going to increase the human tragedy tenfold," said Rob Weppler, president of local support group Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users. Since the crackdown began April 7, needle distribution has dropped by half, and condom handouts to prostitutes are down 60 percent, according to Weppler.

The British Columbia Center for Disease Control estimates the AIDS rate among area addicts at more than 30 percent, while well over half the IV drug users are infected with hepatitis C.

Vancouver is a finalist for the 2010 Olympics, and members of the International Olympic Committee were kept far from the district when they visited in March. Some fear a broader crackdown before the IOC's final decision in July.

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