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Vancouver Police officers, Cnst. Jennifer Antonel, centre, and Cnst. Courtney Park, right, walk through an alley behind East Hastings Street while working in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, B.C., on Monday July 11, 2016.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

As people stream in through the alley entrance to one of the Downtown Eastside's pop-up supervised drug consumption sites, the street-level dealers remain perched metres away.

These young men, clad in dark jackets and hoodies, casually dole out paper flaps of crystal methamphetamine or heroin that likely contains fentanyl, the synthetic opioid that has been blamed for an ongoing overdose crisis that is expected to have killed more than 800 people across B.C. last year.

For the most part, they are ignored by former Vancouver Park Board commissioner Sarah Blyth, who runs the grass-roots consumption site on the unit block of East Hastings Street.

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"The guys on the street are way down the food chain, they might be people who are addicted themselves and living in difficult situations," Ms. Blyth said late Thursday morning, by which time staff at the consumption site had already reversed two overdoses. "They're the low men on the totem pole."

The fentanyl-driven overdose crisis continues to ravage the Downtown Eastside, with eight deaths recorded there in a single day last month, but drug-policy experts and the Vancouver police say resources are better spent targeting importers and higher-level traffickers rather than the small-time dealers who fuel an open-air drug market that has thrived in this part of the city for more than a decade.

Massive crackdowns in late 2000 and early 2003 netted multiple charges for hundreds of people, but the street-level sales in the Downtown Eastside soon continued just as before.

In recent years, courts in B.C. have become increasingly lenient on street-level dealers who are coerced into the trade or are trafficking to support their own addictions, according to Donald MacPherson, director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition.

"The judges have clearly said to the police: 'Don't bring us addicted dealers, they need health and social programs, not the criminal justice system,'" Mr. MacPherson said. "You have to go up the food chain and you get to questions like: 'Okay, why can the police not target the people supplying the street level dealers?'

"Well they do and they're not easy to catch."

Sergeant Randy Fincham, Vancouver Police Department spokesman, said his department chooses to deploy its resources investigating the organized crime groups and higher-level traffickers who supply the street-level market and use intimidation or violence to control it.

"Those investigations are often fairly lengthy," said Sgt. Fincham, though he was unable to provide statistics Thursday on how many higher-level dealers have faced charges in recent years.

"We're seizing pill counts in the hundreds of thousands, we're seizing fentanyl at the kilogram level – we're trying to hit the large-scale importers, large-scale manufacturers."

Imports of fentanyl are harder to track compared with other drugs, or their precursors, because it takes very little of the drug to be cut up into much larger quantities for the street, Sgt. Fincham said.

Mr. MacPherson said the VPD understands that, as long as these drugs remain illegal, a black market will thrive and the department must be strategic about its goals.

"Look at every city in North America, there is a vibrant street-level drug market no matter how many police are thrown at it," he said.

Before Expo 86, people could buy cocaine and amphetamines on the Granville Strip and in the West End, Mr. MacPherson said. That's when the authorities pushed all these dealers into the Downtown Eastside, where the number of blocks with open dealing has since dwindled, he added.

Still, overdose deaths occurred throughout the province last year and statistics show that people of all backgrounds are overdosing on a variety of different illegal drugs, many adulterated with fentanyl.

Ms. Blyth says the only way to cut out the black market and stop the ongoing epidemic is to provide legal sources of heroin or other illicit substances.

"We need to get them medication that is done by caring professionals, as opposed to guys on the street that just don't care," she said.

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