Big city problems

The numbers are out, and crime is up in the province, with violent crime in particular on the rise. Police are saying it’s the way crime is being recorded, but community groups are saying it has a lot to do with drugs.

by Sarah Smellie

The gigantic sixteen foot tall billboard on the side of the Stockwood’s building on Freshwater Road is about to make city history. At the beginning of August, RAFT, Recovering Addicts Fellowship Team, will be using the space for a giant advertisement about their free, confidential addictions recovery services, thus creating the first billboard in town to address the city’s escalating drug problems.

“There’s been a huge increase in cocaine abuse in the city,” says Paul Donovan, of the Community Youth Network, barely hiding his frustration. “Just huge.”

The sudden increase is particularly high amongst the younger folks of the city, with the 2007 Student Drug Use Survey reporting increased use from kids as young as eleven and twelve. And its effects are becoming more and more visible to the average Joe. In fact, a lot of downtown restaurants, who primarily employ people from the “youth” pool, are running into a new obstacle in this year’s mid-summer staffing crisis.

“We’ve been having a hard time finding people to work who aren’t on it all the time,” says one local restaurant owner. “It’s just wicked.”

St. John’s has also added a youth chapter of Cocaine Anonymous to its roster of metropolitan services this year. The demand is so great that the meetings have not only been heartily populated, but they now occur three times a week.

Unfortunately, it’s not clear what exactly is behind all this.

RNC Constable Steve Knight believes it’s a typical consequence of a city becoming more metropolitan on the heels of big money.

“Unfortunately, with prosperity, you get these kinds of issues. People have more money and they can afford these kinds of drugs so they create a demand for them,” he says.

But Paul Donovan thinks that answer is a bit of a cop out (pun intended).

“I remember ten years ago, there was a lot of cocaine around, but it was with the affluent adults,” says Donovan. “What was the excuse then?”

“Maybe it’s because some of the drug busts have put a real crimp in the amount of weed available,” he says, referring to the recent string of highly publicized pot busts in the province.

While Constable Knight says he does feel the pot busts removed a lot of pot from the streets, “it doesn’t work that way… there’s two different markets there.”

There have been a few other RNC assessments met with derision and frustration recently. Statistics Canada released an annual report showing an 8.6% overall increase in crime for 2007, with violent crime up by 11.1%.

The RNC says it’s because they changed their record keeping strategies—they now file the paperwork for any reported incident, whether charges were pressed or not.

“If we get a phone call, say, about a fight and we show up and everyone has dispersed, we file a report anyways,” explains Knight.

Many people in community services field—like the Community Youth Network—argue the numbers indicate worsening drug problems.

“Let’s just say that I don’t know anyone doing armed robberies to get money for weed, but I know a lot who are doing them to get money for cocaine,” points out Donovan.

Both Donovan and Constable Knight think that this problem is probably going to get worse before it gets better. Constable Knight thinks it will be the continuing influx of cash into the city that perpetuates the problem.

Donovan thinks it will carry on until there is more openness to real discussion about the nature and magnitude of the problem.

“We bury a lot of stuff here, not wanting to address that there are serious problems in our community. We need to stop minimizing the issues, stop thinking that because we’re a small city, we don’t have the same problems as Toronto or Montreal. We have them here.”