3 min

Police violence no solution to drug-use woes

Persecution will lead to more harm, not less

“Overdose death spurred dance club raid.” Sometimes the headlines tell the truth — but not the whole truth.

Early one cold Sunday morning in March, 89 officers from over a dozen police agencies stormed into the Comfort Zone, an after-hours club at the corner of College and Spadina streets in Toronto.

Over 100 patrons were searched — and some allege that assault-rifle-toting officers used excessive, violent force. Ultimately, 33 people were arrested, and police say they seized $30,000 worth of drugs and $35,000 in cash.

In online discussions, those present claim the police disabled the bar’s security cameras so they could act with impunity, and took every last penny they could find, right down to the coat-check person’s tip jar. Patrons who were not arrested subsequently told news media they were thrown to the ground, punched, kicked, stomped in the head and bloodied.

Why did this happen? Police allege that the bar was responsible for a drug-overdose death. Twenty-six-old Hamiltonian Andrew Fazio died in his home on January 27 after using the party drug GHB. “This young man died as a result of an overdose of illegal drugs which were purchased and consumed at the Comfort Zone,” Detective Sergeant Ed Roseto told reporters at a Metro Police press conference the day after the raid.

“We are working […] to close this place down,” said Roseto, who described the bar as “pitch black inside,” and claimed there were tables of drugs laid out openly in the bar for sale. He likened it a “flea market.”

The deceased man’s sister tearfully told reporters that her brother had only been introduced to GHB in January, and by the end of that month he had died. “I’m very happy that a place like this has been closed down, so now another family will not feel this way,” she said.

On the surface, this may sound pretty straightforward. People are dying and police have identified the place where fatal drugs are being bought and sold. It only makes sense to shut it down. Or does it?

Any death related to the use of any substance — legal or illicit — is a terrible tragedy. And it’s pretty clear that if people engage in activities that break the law, they expose themselves to the risk of police persecution.

But there may be little relationship between this man’s death and the Comfort Zone. A friend of Fazio told media the man had been using GHB all weekend long at multiple venues, casting doubt on the police rationale for the raid. And numerous online commentators have asserted that Fazio was hardly the naïf portrayed in the press conferences but an “avid clubber” and known GHB dealer himself.

The police raid, part of a larger operation with the dubious moniker of Operation White Rabbit, took place within a larger context. The federal Tories have adopted a position that evokes the US government’s failed “War on Drugs,” insisting that drug use is a criminal issue rather than a health matter, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary documented in respected sources ranging from The Lancet to Foreign Policy.

A non-licensed venue, the Comfort Zone is well-known in the Toronto club scene for its positive vibe and as a home for distinctive house music. Many see it as a non-violent alternative to the alcohol-fuelled, testosterone-driven atmosphere of the city’s Entertainment District — which is full of bars where an arguably far greater amount of drug use and sales transpires anyway.

The Comfort Zone shows few signs of capitulating to police pressure. The following Sunday, the bar was packed despite the fact police made a return visit and placed two more people under arrest. There were no flea-market-style drug tables in sight, just people enjoying the music like usual. Later that night, a couple police cars were stationed outside the bar — perhaps to frighten people away.

Persecuting people who use drugs and shutting down places where they socialize is likely to lead to more untreated overdoses and fatalities, not less. Targeting the Comfort Zone will have little positive impact on drug-related harm. The police have manipulated a family’s grief and sorrow for ideological ends. That’s a tragedy too.