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Base Logic Part Two: The System

December 2, 2010 | by  |  Features

Over the course of three months The Dependent earned the trust of a small group of drug dealers operating in the Downtown Eastside. Standing shoulder to shoulder in the alleys and the on the corners, we conducted interviews with those involved and observed the Hastings drug trade from the unique perspective of the street.

Second in a four part series on drug dealing in the Downtown Eastside.

Read part one.

Photo Credit: Liam Hanham

I return almost daily — learning the intricacies of the cop/dealer/ID dance, witnessing the alley’s welfare day transformation from ant colony to hornet’s nest, and identifying the loose schedules followed by the crews who station themselves “out back”.

My guys are the morning crew, and with them my presence is tolerated but not quite trusted. Dealers, unintroduced, stop mid-sentence to demand: who the fuck is this guy? They remain silent, eyes fixed on me, until Royal confirms that I’m “cool.”

By walking around with you, I’m vouching for you, he explains. They’d never let you stand here.

I ask him why he bothers talking to me at all, and I get a cold shrug in reply.

You’re not gonna decide that I know too much and kick the shit out of me one day, are you?

It’s the first time I’ve made him laugh.

Nah man, I’m not telling you anything the cops don’t already know.

The truth is, Royal hardly tells me anything. Instead, he tolerates my presence, often as if I’m not even there. Peering over his shoulder I build the foundations of my understanding, and armed with a few new words and some borrowed credibility I set out to learn more.

A short girl with no eyebrows marches over to the dealer beside me. They walk down the alley, talking quietly. I recognize the girl as a worker: a carrier of a small amount of drugs but a large amount of risk.

She has been fronted a half-ball, a hunk of crack worth about $100, which she breaks up with a razor blade and sells in the alley alcoves. She has come to give the dealer his proceeds of the sale, usually about $75, and is then free to sell or smoke the rest.

I step over to Grin, who stands away from the group, leaning against a building.

The workers are all addicts, right?

Yeah.

Can you use any worker you want?

Some of them are exclusive, like they got one main boss and they’ll only work for him. But others will work for anybody, you know?

As if to illustrate the point, a few minutes later he’s arguing with another dealer over the rights to a sheepish looking man in a filthy white tracksuit. Overruled, Grin settles against a telephone pole, and I’m reminded of a conversation over lunch with Royal and another senior dealer:

What would happen if I tried to start selling out back?

And you didn’t know us? It wouldn’t happen.

We wouldn’t even have to touch you, we’d just tell all the workers to give us your stuff.

And what if I did know you?

Well, you pick up off somebody and they let you in, and then you just gotta keep selling their stuff.

See, you think all those guys are bosses, but they’re not — they’re workers, Royal reveals.

Grin, along with most of the other young men out here, is only a couple of notches from the bottom. A boss fronts him a zip (the street term for an ounce of cocaine), which cooks down to about 30 half-balls. Grin pays $1,300 for the zip, due once it’s been sold. His aim is to move one a day, which clears him almost a thousand dollars, but there are plenty of obstacles — not least of all, finding workers.

How come you’re always out in the morning? I ask him. Are there shifts?

There’s no shifts; we all get to choose, you know? But if you come too late, then the workers are all tied up.

The addicts who take care of the actual sale of drugs are a hotly-contested commodity, the senior dealers laying claim to the most experienced and trustworthy. Those with a long history on the streets know the most addicts and can therefore push the most product. They’re also less likely to take off with the drugs.

As workers return, seeking their next package, the dealers whisper instructions for reloading in their ear. But if the workers are hotly-contested, the most cherished are those known as the Holders. The ghostly layer between dealers and workers is the most vulnerable part of the system, and exactly what they do is one of the few subjects still taboo in my presence.

Photo Credit: Liam Hanham

At the alley entrance a cop car sits, engine running, two wheels on the sidewalk. I cross the street to make a lap around the block and notice a young man with a coffee and an iPhone in hand. He rests his cup on a parking divider, pulls a wad of bills from his pocket and counts it, then does the same with a pile of coins.

Is it busier on sunny days? I ask.

He looks up, startled. A little busier on sunny days, yeah.

But busiest near the end of the month, right? I say, referring to the government checks that set the alleys ablaze.

He seems puzzled.

Last week of the month, yeah.

When I explain that I’m writing an article and ask him if he’s willing to talk he hesitates, chews at his lip, then steps over.

Is it good money?

It used to be way better. You could make over $1,000 a day. Not anymore: 300, maybe 400 a day. If you work it out it’s like $25 an hour. Too much competition. So many dealers down here now.

What about the police? Have they made it tougher?

No, he says emphatically, they let us do it. If they wanted to stop me they could, just like that, and he snaps his fingers. I had some problems with the police a couple of years ago and in like two weeks they gathered up all the evidence they needed. They got everything on me. They can do it anytime they want, but they don’t.

Are you ever holding anything that could get you in trouble?

I hold no money. I never hold drugs. Well, I hold a little bit of money, but not much. You find a guy who will hold for you and you find a worker. The worker goes out, sells, comes back, hands the holder the money, and reloads.

How much does the holder have?

Depends.

More than the workers?

Oh yeah.

And he’s an addict?

Yep.

I pause, putting it all together.

You must trust him to leave him with so much.

We get burned. The guys get pinched by the cops or they take off. But you just gotta treat ‘em right. Some people treat them like shit and get burned. You pay him well, buy him cigarettes and food and give him something to smoke. He’s got everything he needs and he’s not stupid, he sticks around. Why would he throw it all away?

The dealer tells me he’s got to get back to work and I continue on my loop around the block. My sunny day opener breaks the icy stare of a Latino dealer I’ve tried to talk to twice before.

When I explain that my story is from the perspective of the dealers, the rest of his crew gathers around. I’m keen to hear whether the Latinos out front operate in the same way as the crews out back, but before we have a chance to talk a toothless man cries out, two coming down! a chorus that is repeated all the way down the block.

The dealers tell me that they’ll be right back as two cops come over the hill with a wave of street folk cresting in front them. Arms puffed out to accommodate their guns and radios, the sidewalk is empty in their wake, but within a few minutes everyone is back, dealers included.

Gaunt, weathered faces shuffle towards us and request powder (cocaine), base (crack), or down (heroin). The dealers motion them to a tall man with a creased face and sunken cheeks standing in the middle of a lurching crowd of tokers.

Grin was right: with the Latinos there’s more on display than out back — their worker is stationed within plain sight.

I ask the icy dealer to clarify my understanding of the system.

There are three levels: the worker, who is an addict and who actually sells the product… He nods. The holder, who is also an addict, but trusted, and holds all the product and money and resupplies the workers… And the boss, who doesn’t touch anything, but just supervises.

Yep, he says, and I’m about to ask him about the temptation of the workers and holders, but we’re interrupted once again by a cry of ‘three coming down!’ On the horizon a trio of broad figures lumbers towards us.

We walk.

They know what you’re doing, right? I ask.

Yeah.

So, why do you bother moving?

Out of respect, he says. We get out of their way to show that we know who they are. Some guys just stand there, but we move.

Suddenly he stops.

Alright, man, he says, bumping my fist. And he’s gone.

Around the corner I spot Royal and a senior dealer standing with a fresh-faced guy I’ve never seen before. He’s being educated on the system.

It’s like any other business, the senior man explains, you gotta know where your inventory is at all times. He looks over at me: right, man?

I nod, not sure that it’s the right thing to do. As I do so, though, I realize that my understanding of this system is nearly complete.

Two tiers of addicts, whom the courts view as sick and exploited rather than criminal, insulate the dealers from the law and allow them to stand openly on the street corners. But while the workers and holders provide resilience to the system, they seem a likely weakness as well — I wonder how much product is lost in their pipes and arms.

Could this be the source of the fabled violence of the Downtown Eastside drug trade? I make it my aim to find out.

Photo Credit: Liam Hanham

Matt Chambers is the editor and publisher of The Dependent Magazine. He's in way over his head.

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13 Comments


  1. Simon Staszkiewicz

    Very very interesting! Do you guys dress down? Have you been in any situations where you feared for your life? Consider using quotation marks, as I know I’m not the only person that found the dialogue a little confusing to read without them.

  2. Great work, Matt!

    Simon: I’m guessing that it’s hard to take exact notes of the conversations that take place. In fact, that’s something that I’ve kind of been wondering about: are you taking notes while you’re doing this, Matt, or are you committing this all to memory. I imagine the dealers wouldn’t be too thrilled if you whipped out a note-book and started jotting things down while you were talking to them.

  3. Damn! Once again, awesome followup to a very interesting article. Keep it up!

  4. This is a really great article. I generally despise everything that Matt does, but this is one of the most interesting, engaging pieces of writing that I have seen in some time.

  5. Krell Banjo-player

    Excellent writing, nicely done.

  6. Linked.

    This is the stuff MSM never, ever, writes about. You nailed it.

    Keep going.

  7. when does part 3 come out?

  8. Part three comes out Tuesday.

    Re: notes – recording was absolutely out of the question and openly jotting quotes in my notebook made for awkward moments. I would duck out to the cafe every hour or so and write like mad.

    As for “dressing down” – I tried wearing the uniform a few times, but found it better to stick out. I didn’t want anyone to interact with me believing that I was a dealer or addict only to find out that I was writing a story.

    Suspicions run high and the consequences are very real.

    Stay tuned.

  9. The journalist does a good job explaining his research and how he chooses his questions. But I have the same question as everybody else, which challenges the journalism in his story – is this by memory or by note taking?

    Since it is by memory (noted above), it makes sense that there are no quotations because everything is paraphrased instead of direct quotes.

    The advantage the reporter has in interviewing drug dealers, is that he does not have to worry about them coming back and saying, “I never said that, your story is wrong.”

    This either means he has a great memory, or he lets his eagerness get in the way of his journalism.

    In either case, it’s nice to get a fresh perspective on the Downtown Eastside.

  10. Hi Gabe,

    Appreciate the thoughtful reply, although I disagree with your either or conclusion. For example, it’s possible that I have a great memory and I let my eagerness get in the way of my journalism…

    Joking aside, I’m aware of the shortcomings of this story. I spent a long time considering how to best present it, and whether my information was good enough. In the end, I felt the potential harm caused by any gaps in my information, balanced against the public’s desire to know, justified publication in this form.

    The reality is, this is not a story that would be published in the mainstream media. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, I’m not entirely sure…

    In either case, thanks for reading.

  11. This is an interesting and well-written investigation. Thanks for doing it, and stay safe journalist!

  12. You’re right that this wouldn’t be published in a mainstream Canadian newspaper, but I think it’s not because it isn’t worthy, or wouldn’t be seen as worthy. I work at a newspaper and would love to do this story but can’t, mostly because I simply don’t have the many, many hours that were thankfully spent on these pieces. If we had twice as many newspaper reporters in the Lower Mainland, or more magazines to publish and pay for longer pieces, we would read stuff like this much more often.

  13. Matt,

    This is such a great story. I often complain about the demise of journalism with publications like the 24 hour and Metro becoming the standard source for news, but an article like this restores my faith.

    Well-researched and great writing. Keep up the good work!

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