Alcohol Prohibition Never Ended in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. We See Another Way Forward.

Vancouver is Awesome, June 1st, 2021. The Vancouver Park Board’s public drinking pilot program continues to exclude the Downtown Eastside.

The legalization of public drinking was top-of-mind for many in Vancouver in the wake of COVID-19 – but don’t be fooled. These “progressive” policies won’t be made available to everyone, especially not people who need an end to alcohol criminalization the most. Last summer, the Vancouver Park Board voted to support a pilot program that would legalize public drinking in 22 parks across Vancouver. City council followed suit two days later with a similar motion to sanction public drinking in select plazas across the city. Commendable as this progress may seem, there is still much to be desired in these initiatives. The Downtown Eastside (DTES) was largely excluded from these pilot programs – and this is no accident. DTES pubs began to close en-masse last September with the deepening of COVID-19, alongside the shuttering of local parks which made public space even more scarce in the neighbourhood. This would have been an essential moment to include drinkers in the making of the new policy. Yet again, however, policymakers ignored the perspectives of drinkers in the DTES when developing alcohol policies for the City of Vancouver.

I was disappointed and intrigued to hear of these policy developments (or lack thereof) during a summer conversation with advocates for alcohol harm reduction in the DTES convened by the Eastside Illicit Drinkers Group for Education (EIDGE), a peer-directed organization of drinkers living in the DTES who work to empower people who use non-beverage alcohol, home-brewed alcohol and/or drink in public spaces. Illicit drinkers living in the DTES are an especially stigmatized community who bear the brunt of poverty, intergenerational trauma, colonialism, homelessness, harassment by police and interpersonal violence. The failure to ensure drinker-inclusive alcohol policy was not unfamiliar to EIDGE and the Drinkers Lounge Community Managed Alcohol Program (CMAP), who have spearheaded community efforts to reform alcohol control for a decade. 

As a graduate student investigating the history of alcohol policy in the DTES, it is clear to me that these recent decisions echo a long history of failed efforts to reduce harm for the most marginalized drinkers in the DTES. The exclusion of the DTES community from these recent policy changes has also shed light on the existence of ongoing inequity in the consultation and implementation of city wide policies, programs and services related to alcohol. 

Residents of the DTES have long reflected that living in the V6A area code means that you face barriers accessing services and amenities that the rest of the city takes for granted, like drinking outdoors. City council’s decision to sanction an outdoor space for use by the Drinkers Lounge in February 2021 is a perfect example of this added scrutiny. This “parklet” garnered significant media attention and represents a progressive step towards public health equity for drinkers in the neighbourhood. However, the sanctioning of a small patio space in which alcohol may be consumed would not attract much attention outside of the DTES. This begs the question of why the sanctioning of the Drinkers Lounge parklet was a novel event, and why advocates were made to navigate a prohibitionist alcohol policy landscape in order to secure this safe outdoor space.

Traditional public health approaches in B.C. to alcohol control have been typically “supply-side,” meaning that they are largely concerned with reducing the amount of alcohol purchased and consumed by the general population. Policies that increase the price of a standard drink through taxation, limit the number of alcohol outlets in neighbourhoods, and restrict the advertising of alcoholic drinks are common strategies used by B.C.’s provincial governments, city councils and regional health authorities. While this approach has reduced alcohol-related harm for a large segment of the population, its application as a one-dimensional approach to alcohol control in the DTES can actually compound existing harm in more vulnerable communities.

For people whose drinking lies at the higher end of the continuum of use, supply-side-only approaches to alcohol control can cause harm in two ways. First, public policies that limit the accessibility of beverage alcohol without providing necessary support in its place can drive drinkers towards unsafe alcohol substitutes to avoid dangerous withdrawal. These include rubbing alcohol, mouthwash, and hand sanitizer. Secondly, a focus on reducing consumption at all costs is sometimes viewed as incompatible with a wide range of harm reduction-informed services, like Managed Alcohol Programs (MAPs). MAPs are a type of harm reduction intervention that regularly dispenses beverage alcohol alongside housing and/or other programming. They are a targeted program for those who have struggled with traditional alcohol abstinence programs, and can help prevent alcohol-related harms by reducing consumption of non beverage alcohol among other benefits. For drinkers living in the DTES, policymakers’ longstanding preference for abstinence-oriented treatment over harm reduction looms large.

De facto Prohibition from Carrall to Clark

Taken to their logical conclusion, alcohol policies based on supply-side principles are eerily reminiscent of the early 20th century in B.C., when alcohol prohibition was in full effect. From 1917 to 1921, the purchase and sale of most types of beverage alcohol was illegal in the province. Temperance in B.C. lasted only a short while, except for Indigenous peoples, for whom prohibition remained in place until the 1960s. Historian Robert A. Campbell has illustrated that drinking outlets were concentrated in the DTES after prohibition due to the lobbying efforts of the hotel industry and the desire of local government to “contain” perceived vice. Downtown beer parlours catered largely to white settlers and became sites of social control. Arbitrary legal definitions of Indigeneity and Asian heritage permitted owners to refuse both service and employment to racialized people. For settler colonial countries, “selective” prohibitions were weaponized by governments to manufacture negative, white supremecist stereotypes about colonized populations and create a quasi-legal means of governing their everyday lives. The racist creation and enforcement of liquor laws marks the history of much of Western Canada, a relationship that has been documented by writers and academics like James Wilt, Owen Toews, Adele Perry and Renisa Mawani

The DTES is home to one of the largest urban Indigenous communities in Canada, and over 70% of EIDGE members are Indigenous. This fact, along with the unchecked police violence and criminalization experienced by drinkers in the neighbourhood, exemplifies the violence of settler colonialism that underwrites all alcohol-related harm in the DTES. Today, the local government’s decision to create restrictive alcohol policies for the DTES (compared with other Vancouver neighbourhoods) reflects a version of racial prohibition. These policies represent a de facto targeting of Indigenous peoples and other racialized residents living in the area. 

The Vancouver Park Board’s recent decision to exclude the DTES from its public drinking pilot for the second summer in a row is an important example of present-day racial prohibition policy, yet other remnants of alcohol prohibition also linger in the DTES today. Between 1988 and 1990, city council placed a moratorium on the granting of new liquor licenses and the opening of liquor stores in the Oppenheimer area. These moratoria were applied to the entire DTES in 2012, and a series of 2017 policy changes upheld the ban on new liquor stores. While the two existing private stores bordering the neighbourhood have been allowed to expand and relocate, no new outlets can be opened. Prior to it’s closure 40 years ago, a B.C. Liquor store did exist in the Oppenheimer area, the heart of the DTES. While the city has also attempted to control the number of liquor outlets along a section of Granville Street, these neighbourhood-specific restrictions are unique to the DTES. The license moratorium and liquor store ban were not intended to wipe out the supply of affordable beverage alcohol in the neighbourhood. However, that is exactly the situation that has emerged following the closure of a liquor store formerly at Main and Hastings, ongoing gentrification of alcohol vending and the COVID-19 pandemic.

While COVID-19-related restrictions on public access to pubs throughout the city are likely to have reduced virus transmission, public health orders that restrict the hours of Liquor-Primary licensees have nearly wiped out the affordable alcohol supply in the DTES. This is a dangerous prospect for people who require alcohol to avoid withdrawal and have limited income. These measures disproportionately impact DTES pubs, which have historically existed in SRO hotels and served affordable alcohol as Liquor-Primary license holders rather than food. Changes to provincial pricing regulations, the growing number of gentrified brew-pubs in the Gastown area, and market forces more generally have also driven the price of both beverage and non-beverage alcohol skyward. The resulting scarcity of affordable alcohol continues to place drinkers at risk and forces many to spend hours on crowded public transit in order to access cheaper retail outlets. For drinkers who want non-abstinence-based treatment and recovery, including MAP referral, controlled drinking punctuated by “liver holidays” or medication-assisted treatment, options are few and far between. Only one MAP is currently able to accept referrals in the DTES, whose already under-resourced programming has been stretched thin by the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic. Other drinkers asking for acamprosate, a drug that manages high-risk drinking, are frequently turned away on account of an ongoing shortage in Vancouver, despite it being a medically-necessary Wellbutrin for many. For most, the shortage of safer alcohol, alcohol-related treatment services and available harm reduction resources presents a significant health risk.

Through the medium of alcohol policy, the DTES has quietly been singled out as a space of alcohol-related risk and disorder for decades, whose racialized residents apparently ought not enjoy similar rights to access alcohol held by other Vancouverites. The past and present consequences of this framing continue to place the health of structurally vulnerable drinkers at risk. 

Learning from the History of the 230 East Hastings Liquor Store

The exterior of the former B.C. Liquor Store located at 230-232 East Hastings in 1931. Source: COV Archives, AM1535-: CVA 99-4028, Box: 192-A-06

A critical look at the history of alcohol policy in the DTES provides further evidence of the influence of prohibitionist thinking on the neighbourhood. But it is not the full story. I became interested in that history as an undergraduate student working with the Right to Remain, a tenant-directed research project hosted by the DTES SRO-Collaborative Society. The Right to Remain knows that people have a right to their own history, and knowing history gives power to the modern day tenants’ rights movement. In today’s DTES, as it has for many years, harm reduction and housing go hand in hand. Owing largely to the historical association between SROs and public drinking in Vancouver, my pursuit of SRO history resurfaced a longstanding dance between colonial alcohol policy and alcohol harm reduction activism in Vancouver. The B.C. liquor store once located at 230-232 East Hastings St. provides a telling story of the tragic consequences of prohibitionist alcohol control in the DTES.

The Carnegie Crescent, November 30th, 1980, p. 1

Formerly located near the corner of Main and Hastings, the B.C. Liquor Store at 230-232 East Hastings was a focal point of community activism in the DTES beginning in 1980. When a group of well-intentioned community advocates threw their support behind a campaign to close the liquor store in a sincere effort to improve the conditions of their neighbourhood. However, this campaign would ultimately cause harm to many drinkers living in the DTES. Rookie Alderman Bruce Eriksen, formerly of the Downtown Eastside Residents Association (DERA), alongside organized associations of community service workers began the campaign to close the liquor store by publicizing their negative views of its influence on the community in local newspapers and voicing their concerns to City Council. The campaign gathered steam from then on, attracting the support of Mayor (and future Premier) Mike Harcourt and City Council in February of 1981. In fact, some outspoken neighbourhood leaders rather simplistically viewed the Hastings B.C. Liquor Store as the source of many problems, glossing over the multifold systemic and structural causes of drug-related harm in the community. Nevertheless, Council’s appeals to the Social Credit Minister of Consumer and Corporate Affairs Peter Hyndman were successful. The store was shuttered for a 6-month trial period on July 1st, 1981 and never reopened, much to the detriment of the neighbourhood’s drinking residents.   

The Carnegie Crescent, August 31st, 1985

Internal documents from a Mayor’s Task Force that was convened in response to the closure indicate that the City of Vancouver acknowledged the futility of this effort at the time. Task force subcommittee members soon admitted that the closure of the liquor store at Main and Hastings was likely to blame for a noted increase in non-beverage alcohol use, which became the subject of frequent coverage by community newspapers like the Carnegie Crescent (later the Carnegie Newsletter). EIDGE members today note that people typically turn to non-beverage alcohol because it is cheaper and more available than its drinkable counterpart. One can only imagine the panic and fear that rippled through a vulnerable community of drinkers in 1981 when news of the store’s closure went public.

In the wake of the closure, Mayor Harcourt established the Mayor’s Task Force on Alcohol Problems in the Downtown Eastside. The intention of the task force was to pair the store’s closure with an enforcement-based crackdown on public drinking and the now more visible problem of cooking wine consumption in the DTES. The high salt and alcohol content in cooking wine worried local governments, community activists and other neighbourhood residents, whose concerns ranged from fears of public disorder to concern for the health and wellbeing of drinkers. The largely Chinese-Canadian-owned grocery stores and confectionaries of the DTES and Chinatown became the targets of joint DERA and Vancouver Police Department (VPD) inspections. These inspections were intended to deter local merchants from selling cooking wine for human consumption. The historian Kay Anderson writes that since the 19th century, Chinese-Canadians residing in downtown Vancouver have been associated with the “corruption” of white settler morals and productivity by local government and public health officials. The perceived association of Chinese-Canadian men with the vices of gambling, drinking and drug use was frequently cited by settler authorities as justification for the violent dispossession of this community. The violent 1907 Anti-Asian riots provide a disturbing example of this past. Through its decision to respond to non-beverage alcohol use and illicit drinking by cracking down on Chinese-Canadian residents of the DTES, the Mayor’s Task Force reflected the racist drug policy that defines much of Vancouver’s history. Ultimately, the prohibitionist approach to alcohol control that informed the Task Force harmed marginalized drinkers and racialized DTES residents then as it does now.

Community-Driven Harm Reduction as a Way Forward

To the members of EIDGE and the Drinkers Lounge, supply-side approaches and harm reduction can and ought to co-exist. Neighbours care for one another in spite of punitive liquor statutes and their sometimes violent enforcement. Instead of existing in contradiction, population-level alcohol control and individually-focused harm reduction should work together to meet drinkers’ needs across the continuum of use. Without one strategy, the other cannot hope to maximize its contribution to public health and social justice. 

The disconnect between mainstream alcohol policy and harm reduction has visible consequences today. The shockingly high mortality rates and extreme structural vulnerability of drinkers who consume illicit alcohol in the DTES prove that they are critically underserved and discriminated against by existing health and social services. In response to this urgent need and a lack of  action from local public health authorities, drinkers have had to look after one another. The most transformative recent developments in Vancouver’s alcohol harm reduction landscape have been drinker-led. These achievements  include peer-staffed alcohol exchange, co-operative brewing to supply the Drinkers Lounge CMAP, opportunities for cultural reconnection, outreach teams and a dedication to day-to-day mutual aid that rivals that of any close-knit community. Despite this commitment to taking care of one another, drinkers need to be supported by a comprehensive new approach to alcohol policy in Vancouver that begins the long process of redress for decades of prohibitionist policymaking in the DTES. 

A Vancouver Alcohol Strategy that is anchored in the principles of harm reduction and the grounded expertise of drinkers themselves would be a significant leap forward to this end. Guided by the facilitation of EIDGE and the Drinkers Lounge, a diverse group of stakeholders working in the area of alcohol policy and harm reduction have worked alongside people with lived experience to produce such a framework since the fall of 2020. The forthcoming Vancouver Alcohol Strategy will complement population-level, supply-side approaches to alcohol control with the much-needed radical pragmatism that comes with alcohol harm reduction. 

Drinkers and service providers have expressed a clear need for safe indoor and outdoor spaces for illicit drinkers in Vancouver, a blanket decriminalization of drinkers in the DTES paired with an end to police harassment. They’ve also called for more and different types of MAPs throughout the city, significant reforms to alienating detox and inpatient recovery models, and collaboration with provincial ministries to carve out space and resources for alcohol harm reduction. Notably, the future of alcohol harm reduction in Vancouver as articulated by people with grounded expertise also rejects colonial approaches to public health. Instead, it centres culturally-specific approaches to reducing harm for Indigenous peoples. This version of alcohol policy directly and forcefully resists the colonial history of alcohol control in B.C. by replacing it with a network of community-owned services. The effort to undo the legacies of prohibition in the DTES will continue for years to come. However, the widespread adoption of the Vancouver Alcohol Strategy would be a welcome relief for drinkers in Vancouver who for decades have shouldered the burden of mitigating policy-induced harm for themselves and their peers. 

Eastside Illicit Drinkers Group for Education (E.I.D.G.E.) is a group of people who use illicit alcohol living and working in the DTES.  We work to improve the lives of illicit drinkers through education and support. We work together to end the discrimination of illicit drinkers and promote safety amongst our members.

Aaron Bailey is a member of the Right to Remain research collective and graduate student in Health Promotion within the Centre for Environmental Health Equity at Queen’s University. His work focuses on the relationship between history, activism, alcohol harm reduction, and housing in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.