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Nunavut's drug problem worsening: mayor

Kent Driscoll
Northern News Services

Iqaluit (Nov 21/05) - Cambridge Bay Mayor Terry McCallum has been living in Nunavut for 30 years and over that time has seen the territory's demons grow stronger.

"It is hard to measure, but the drugs are much more common now," he said.

This shift has not occurred without a fight.

"Years ago, beer was sold right in the community," he said. "Now they have to order it in, so it is not as readily available."

Rather than making it harder to get intoxicated, these efforts seem to have simply made it more expensive.

According to RCMP officers from around the territory, black market booze and illegal drugs are now big business in the Eastern Arctic.

In Pond Inlet, for example, a 60-ounce bottle of spirits, which retails for roughly $40-$50 in the south, is bootlegged for $400. A one-pint flask goes for $100 on the street and a single gram of marijuana fetches about $60 in this Baffin Island community of about 1,500.

"It is huge. Over 90 per cent of our files involve drugs or alcohol," said Pond Inlet RCMP Const. Denis Lambe.

He explained that on a typical weekend, the detachment has three to five people locked up for alcohol related problems.

"It isn't as bad as Iqaluit, they have 25 some weekends," he said noting Nunavut's capitol was his previous posting before he moved further North.

In Taloyoak, that same pint will cost you about $65 and the marijuana is marked up even more. It is sold as pre-rolled joints weighing far less than a gram for $25 each.

Const. Ivan Provost, of the Taloyoak RCMP detachment, explained that with the pre-rolled joints, no one really knows what they are buying and putting in their bodies.

Provost was just transferred from Toronto, and is used to dealing with alcohol and drug abusers, but he said his job changed dramatically when he came North.

He described the Toronto post as "pizza delivery" work - he'd pick offenders up, drop them off and move on.

"Here you are a lot more a part of the community; you see the same people over and over," he said.

In this Kitikmeot community of about 900, he usually deals with "less than three" people on any given weekend, but he has seen as many as 12 in the lock-up at one time.

"We are not immune to the big city things that lead people astray," said McCallum of Nunavut's smaller centres. "We try to support the members of our community with workshops - we want people to live a good and happy life."

Iqaluit is Nunavut's biggest community and nowhere in the territory are drug and alcohol offenses as prevalent.

In his October report to the Iqaluit city council, Staff Sgt. Ed North reported that there were 603 calls for service in September.

"Alcohol abuse was a contributing factor in almost half of these cases," he stated.

Few alcohol-related statistics have dropped over the last year. Public drunkenness charges at this time last year numbered 100. This year, they're at only 18. Drunk driving offenses also dipped marginally, to 41 from 45 over the same period.

People may not be drunk in public, but their private behaviour is causing problems.

There have been 146 Liquor Act violations this year compared to 106 over the first three quarters of 2004.

Charges for controlled substances have almost doubled to 58 from just 32 for the same period last year.

Perhaps the RCMP numbers that best tell the tale of addiction in Iqaluit are liquor-related occurrences. These are instances when an officer notes that booze was potentially a factor during the investigation of another matter. In this city of about 6,000 people, there have been 2,163 such occurrences so far in 2005, compared to 1,877 a year ago at this time.

Gilles Verreault has been living in Iqaluit on and off for 20 years. He is one of nine drug and alcohol counsellors in the capital and says he's seen the problem escalate firsthand.

He blames the rise on a multitude of factors.

"We have a larger population and more youth," he said.

He said he and his co-workers each see about four or five clients a day for a combination of addictions ranging from booze to cocaine.

"Alcohol is the biggest problem," he said, adding "very few people" come in for help fighting cocaine and crack cocaine addiction.

When asked if Iqaluit needs its own treatment centre, he said such a facility may not be as successful as some would like to think.

"Treatment is a place where they can taste sobriety, but you have to realize that the feeling comes in a safe place," he said. "It isn't home - it isn't reality."

Instead he always recommends his clients go to Alcoholics Anonymous for the framework and ongoing support it provides.