It seems no industry, even among the illicit ones, has been able to escape the global recession.
Toronto police officials say the economic downturn is one factor in a violent turf war playing out in the city, as dealers flood the market and buyers find themselves hard up for cash.
“The drug economy is changing. Because of the (global) economy, it seems more people are dealing or are working in the drug trade now,” said Deputy Chief Tony Warr.
At the same time, buyers have less money to spend.
It comes down to basic supply and demand, Warr said.
“There’s more competition, but less money. And the disputes between drug dealers are getting violent … as they fight over turf.”
It’s a trend in cities across North America, said criminologist Richard Rosenfeld, a professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
“Communities that are right on the economic margin suffer the most during an economic downturn,” he said. “Those persons who may already be criminally active to some degree may expand their activity when there’s little to no legitimate economic activity available.”
Drugs and violent crime go hand in hand, said Rosenfeld. And it’s not always about turf.
“When street-level drug dealing expands, we should expect to see an increase in violence. Drug dealers are prime targets for street robbers because they carry cash and drugs, or both, and they’re reluctant to call police if they’re victimized,” he said.
“As the streets heat up, even people who are not direct participants in the drug market may try to arm themselves.”
Fallout from the changing drug economy is being felt across the country.
In 2007, Ottawa police noticed as many as 20 prominent gang members had moved to Calgary. Cathy Prowse, a criminal anthropologist with the University of Calgary, said the drug business is the same as any other – you go where the money is.
“The pie can only be cut so many ways,” she said.
At the time, gangs found a lucrative drug market in the west. But as the recession trickled into Alberta’s economy and subsequently buyers’ pockets, the money dried up.
Earlier this year, many of those dealers had migrated back to Ottawa, said Ottawa Staff Sgt. Chris Renwick.
In Toronto, intelligence reports have shown a spike in drug dealers operating in the Keele-Eglinton and Jane-Finch neighbourhoods, said Staff Insp. Mario Di Tommaso, unit commander of Toronto’s drug squad.
Since January, more than a dozen homicides and at least 50 shootings have taken place in those areas, including last month’s near-fatal attack on 5-year-old Taniyah Reynolds.
The kindergarten student was sitting outside at a family barbecue when a masked gunman sprayed her front yard with bullets.
But it’s not just gang members involved, Warr stressed. There has also been a sharp increase in the number of low-level street dealers.
Last week, the drug squad raided more than 30 crack houses and marijuana grow operations in those neighbourhoods. Police made 120 arrests, laid more than 400 drug-related charges and seized “hundreds of thousands of dollars” of cocaine, marijuana and ecstasy.
On Monday, 75 officers from the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy, or TAVIS, were deployed to the two neighbourhoods.
“The idea is they will fill any void left (after) the raid,” Warr said.
The raid will soon cause waves in the drug market.
“It usually takes about a week before we see it on the street level, but after a big drug raid, because of supply and demand, we see the price go up,” said Det. Sgt. Howie Page. He said one significant effect of the recession he has noticed is that users are buying very small quantities.
“We’re seeing people buying $3 to $5 worth of crack,” he said.
Crack cocaine is typically priced from $10 to $20.
“And the way they pay for it? Property crime,” Page said. “That’s why we always have to stay on top of the drugs.”