A study called "surprising" by one of its lead researchers has found hard drugs are just 10 minutes away for Vancouver's young users.
The study conducted by the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS found that despite decades of efforts to combat drugs, heroin, crack, cocaine, crystal meth and marijuana can be obtained within minutes, particularly by young drug users.
Dr. Evan Wood, an internal medicine physician and senior author of the study, noted the U.S. declared the war on drugs 40 years ago, but that hasn't helped at-risk youth avoid falling into drug use.
"Their reality in terms of the free and easy availability of drugs is, I think, discordant from your average Canadian's understanding of just how . . . available drugs are on the streets of Canadian cities," said Wood.
The study, to be released later Tuesday, surveyed two groups of people in 2007; one between 14 and 26 years of age who had used an illicit drug other or in addition to marijuana at least 30 days before joining the study.
The other consisted of adult drug users over 16 years old who injected drugs at least a month before the survey.
Both studies asked "How difficult would it be for you to get drugs right now in the area you typically obtain your drugs?"
They then focused on those who answered they could get drugs in 10 minutes and found the small time frame wasn't just for marijuana, but for hard drugs as well.
"That's, I think, the most surprising thing," said Wood. "I'm in the office right now. It would probably take me more than 10 minutes to go and be able to buy a bottle of wine."
Vancouver police spokesman Const. Lindsey Houghton wasn't shocked.
"I don't think it is a surprise to anyone that if someone is motivated enough and has the knowledge on how to obtain illegal drugs, they could probably do it fairly quickly," wrote Houghton in an email. "I'm sure if the study was done five, 10, or 15 years ago the numbers wouldn't have been much different."
Houghton hasn't seen the study yet, but has worked with at-risk youth in the past and said what is important is access to medical care should users have a problem and access to services to help end their addictions.
Reassessing drug policies
Wood said the easy access means current drug policies are not succeeding in stopping the availability and use of illegal drugs and Houghton's comments show police know this.
"While the police are aware, I think your average Canadian is totally unaware of the fact that our streets are so awash in drugs," said Wood, stressing he doesn't want to sugest he's negative about police efforts.
"If supply reduction is the foundation of Canada's drug strategy, we really need to have an impact assessment and evaluation of what we're actually getting from that investment."
He said money spent on prisons and trying to cut the supply of drugs would be more wisely spent on rehabilitation programs and community outreach efforts.
Wood said legalization and regulation would also cut down on incidents where impure products injure users and compared use to that of people going blind drinking homemade booze during alcohol prohibition.
"As an internal medicine physician who not that infrequently sees people who have had a brain injury due to a non-fatal overdose or having to give HIV positive test results to young people, I would love to see a drug-free world," said Wood
"I'm just coming at this as a scientist and someone who wants to advocate for appropriate use of tax dollars and the general public being made more aware of alternative effective strategies that could better improve health and safety."
Walter McKay, a former Vancouver police officer who now is a policing consultant, agrees with Wood that the current drug prohibition model isn't working.
"Our most secure prisons, where you have armed guards, you control the environment entirely — drugs still get inside it," said McKay.
"If we can't even control that and we have absolute control over these prisons, then how can we expect the greater policies of more policing, more man power, more money to keep drugs out of the country or off the street?"
McKay said due to the profits of drug dealing, no matter how many drug dealers are taken off the streets there will always be another one ready to fill the gap in the market.