Fighting the cocaine war
Yellowknife man speaks out about his addiction

Tara Kearsey
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Apr 26/00) - Do you remember watching those commercials stating that you don't have to do drugs to be "cool?" Just say no -- it's easy, right?

Karen Hoeft, a pastor and director of community services for the Salvation Army, sees many troubled drug addicts turning to the organization's Life Recovery support program every week - photo by Tara Kearsey/NNSL


While growing up, most of us heard never-ending lectures about not having to smoke, drink, take drugs or have sex to be accepted by our peers. We were told that all we had to do in order to fit in was to be ourselves.

Some of us were lucky, but many young, impressionable teenagers, in Yellowknife as well as the rest of Canada, were not so fortunate.

Just ask Paul, a 40-year-old recovering alcoholic and drug addict, who has been imprisoned on three separate occasions over the past 20 years for drug-related offences.

Paul (who would rather not reveal his surname) has spent most of his years under the influence of cocaine. Living from high to high was an escape for him. An escape from his emotions, an escape from his anger, an escape from life.

"It's all a game, the whole thing is a game. You've got to do things in a certain way because you've got to fit into society and all that. A lot of people think that's a bunch of hogwash, but it's not," says Paul, who is currently completing a four year and three month federal sentence.

This time, he served one year at the Grande Cache federal prison in Alberta and one year at the Yellowknife Correctional Centre. He is now on day parole and living at the Salvation Army in Yellowknife, where he receives ongoing support from the organization's Life Recovery program.

Paul says he has not used a narcotic for five years now. He has a full-time job and expects to receive full parole within the next few months. But it hasn't been an easy journey.

"At 15 years old I just drank like everybody else, you know, at weekend parties or if school was out. Kids believe that if they drink that they're better looking, a stronger fighter, and `gee all the girls are around,' and that's what alcohol did for me."

At some point in Paul's teen years, he discovered that alcohol didn't give him the same buzz anymore. That's when he turned to codeine pills, sold at $2 a bottle, then to marijuana and hash, and eventually he turned to cocaine.

"I never really believed it when people said `You start off with a little bit and you go to the highest ladder.' Well, I believe that now. I went from everything I said I wouldn't do to doing more, a lot more.

"(Cocaine) is the one I said I'd never touch, I'd never stick a needle in my arm, and I'd done it all in less than nine months after I started to use cocaine," he says.

When Paul first attempted to quit using coke, he was amazed at the lack of physical withdrawal. But he soon discovered that the emotional withdrawal was overwhelming.

"It's the shame, the guilt and the remorse and everything -- that's the stuff that just eats you to the point that you think, `I can't handle these feelings. What can I do?'

"The next thing you know, you see a nice, shiny black car going by and you can't see in the windows and you know it's one of your movers of drugs and you get the jitters and everything -- to me, that was the hardest thing," says Paul.

He also attempted to begin working at his former job, but kept seeing people around him that he knew were using.

"You just kind of see it everywhere ... there is a lot of cocaine in this town," he says.

"And it's getting worse," says Karen Hoeft, a pastor and director of community services for the Salvation Army. She oversees the organization's Life Recovery programs for alcoholics and drug addicts who want to change their lifestyles.

"We're a target for good sales," says Hoeft of Yellowknife's population.

Paul agrees. He says there are countless dealers who travel to Yellowknife with vast quantities of narcotics, and they only come to make money. He says many of them are pulling in as much as $5,000 a month from Yellowknife sales alone.

And it's all about power, says Hoeft.

"I watch the young traffickers. They walk around with lots of money and then the girls follow them and the boys follow the girls -- it's power.

"If you watch a guy pay cash for a truck, that's a lot of power. There are people that have government jobs that cannot pay cash for a truck ... the aura of it is big money, big everything. Everything around cocaine is big," says Hoeft.

Peer pressure is strong

According to Hoeft, the cocaine problem is massive in this city. At the Salvation Army, she sees addicts as young as 21 looking to overcome their addiction to coke, and many have been using for at least five years.

"They want to fit in, their crowd is their family. They want to be part of the group and it doesn't look so terrible and it feels really good.

"Then all of a sudden they're addicted to it, they can't support their habits, so they're either pimping or prostituting themselves, they're doing break and enters and they're into a life of crime and everybody owns them -- they can't just get out," she says.

Paul believes one of the reasons why so many young people are turning to cocaine is because they don't get enough emotional support at home.

"We're in a community that is a government town and everybody works ... it doesn't leave much time for children and their upbringing.

"So the love, affection, compassion and all of the things that you are supposed to get as children, maybe they don't get as much," says Paul.

Hoeft adds that peers then become the sole support groups for many young people, rather than their own family members.

"The problem will continue to multiply unless people change their ideas and values, or we have tragedy," she says.

Those adjustments have to begin at home. Hoeft says that parents have to start talking to their children and establishing an open and honest relationship while they are still very young.

Parent prevention

"People are going to have to stop and say, `Why do our kids trust drug traffickers more than me?' The bottom line is why do they trust these people over their parents? I think those are much deeper value questions that are not going to be answered quickly or easily," says Hoeft.

Often, those who turn to drugs and alcohol have parents who believe they gave their children everything.

But Hoeft believes that deep inside of every cocaine addict is a reason why they were lured into this devastating lifestyle, whether it's visible or not.

"They are the ones who know their story -- the people who maybe feel rejected, abandoned, maybe they were abused as a kid, maybe even their parents didn't know about it.

"We have what looks like these really good families that are full of secrets. If you want to find out why somebody would use drugs, find the secrets and you'll find the answer."

Paul says the drug problem is as widespread and as devastating as it's always been thought to be.

"One person that I was in the program with started off his speech by saying, `We are in a war,' and we are. We are in a war with drugs, and more so with cocaine than with other drugs.

"And how do we win the war? We all have to be part of the problem, we can't just blame certain people in society. We all have to take responsibility and we have to learn to communicate better."