He was one of the legislature's brightest young political staffers during Premier Gordon Campbell's first term in office: Smart, popular, good-looking, a sharp dresser and a sharper talker, Marshall Smith seemed to have it all.
Cruising the corridors of power with an easy confidence that belied his 28 years, he'd whisper advice to cabinet ministers one minute, spin a scrum of reporters the next, then crack up his fellow Liberal insiders with an always-ready joke.
"The Minister of Social Planning," they nicknamed him, because Smith was the guy who organized all the after-work parties. In any number of bars near Government Street, you'd find the ministerial aide whooping it up long after the legislature had shut for the night.
"I was on top of the world and having a blast," he recalls now, even travelling to Prague with Campbell for the announcement of Vancouver's winning Olympic bid. He was introduced to Henry Kissinger and hob-nobbed with Olympic glitterati.
Then it all came crashing down, starting one fateful night in 2004.
"I was in a bar and someone offered me a line of cocaine," said Smith, now 36. "I did it, I liked it and I wanted more. But it was the beginning of the end." He had managed a serious drinking problem for years, but the cocaine was different. Its grip was instantaneous; relentless. And it soon led to an even more vicious drug: crystal methamphetamine.
"I was hooked and couldn't stop," he said. "It was too powerful and I wasn't interested in getting help, only in getting drugs." Quickly enslaved to a $2,000-a-week habit of cocaine, meth and booze, his once promising career unravelled rapidly. He was fired, lost his apartment when the rent money ran out, lost the many friends who couldn't believe his sudden and shocking transformation.
One night, he slung a napsack over his shoulder and drifted through the streets of Victoria in a drug-induced haze, snorting coke and smoking meth all night, ending up sprawled in a doorway as the garbage trucks rolled by. It was his first night as a homeless addict -- a cycle that would go on for the next three years.
>From 2004 to 2007, the one-time rising star of government became a sketchy street-level hustler, dealing drugs to get the money to feed his habit, sleeping in Vancouver parks and alleys and playing cat-and-mouse with police who knew all about his former life in the loftiest circles of political power.
He lost count of how many times he was arrested, eventually doing two stretches in jail for trafficking. He got mixed up in the most dangerous side of the drug world and several times feared for his life.
"I passed out in a house one night and four guys burst in with crowbars to rob the place," he said. "They broke my knee, cheek and hand. One guy jammed a crowbar right through my foot and into the hardwood floor. I barely managed to pull it out and I went running down the street at 5 a.m., bleeding on a broken knee." He was free on bail at the time. Picked up by police again, the incident led to his first drug conviction and a seven-month stretch in Victoria's Wilkinson Road jail, where another former iteration of his life ironically circled back on him.
Before he got into government work, Smith had pursued a career in law enforcement. He studied criminal forensic science at the B.C. Institute of Technology and worked for several years as a prison guard, including at Wilkinson Road.
"Now the guards I used to work with were guarding me," he said. "And the prisoners I used to guard were my fellow inmates." Some of the more hard-core prisoners didn't take kindly to a former "hack" suddenly appearing on their side of the bars. One of them broke his jaw. But even that didn't shock Smith out of his ruinous cravings.
"When I got out, I went straight back to the street, right back to using and dealing," he said. "I lived for six months in a steel shipping container under the Granville Street Bridge. Dropped down to 125 pounds. Some people reached out, but I was beyond help." Those people included his well-to-do parents, who worked in the B.C. film-production business and provided what Smith calls a loving, stable upbringing in an upper-class Victoria neighbourhood and a private-school education.
"They tried, but I told them not to try. I felt guilty and ashamed and didn't want to see them. I saw everything on the street when it comes to family: From people with no family at all, to parents putting themselves in danger trying to rescue their kids. In my case, I told my parents to stay away." He describes his life of addiction on Vancouver's mean streets as a surreal and dangerous mix of violence and tenderness; withering hunger and ravenous consumption of drugs.
"I stayed away from the shelters," he said. "Any time you have a tight concentration of desperate people, that's how you get robbed and assaulted. The streets are full of predators who will lie, steal, beat you up -- anything to get their next fix. You're better off to spread out, and I preferred sleeping at the corner of Nelson and Granville to at a shelter." But interspersed with the rip-offs and punch-ups, Smith said he encountered moments of genuine human bonding, and he formed deep friendships with other homeless addicts.
"I spent many nights huddled in doorways, talking to strangers. That's when I'd open up about my own life, my own downfall and discover I wasn't alone. I met doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers -- people from every walk of professional life who became addicted to drugs." Most of his former friends and associates deserted him, though he'd occasionally bump into them on the street -- even provincial cabinet ministers.
"Some would avoid me. Others would stop and talk. But I was in too deep and my life was becoming like a Quentin Tarantino movie." He said the lowest moment came during another botched robbery in a Vancouver apartment.
"These guys came in and I had something they wanted. One held a shotgun to my head. That was the bottom for me. I thought, 'I can't live this life any more.'" Smith is now grateful he was sent back to jail shortly after that, this time for eight months in a series of Lower Mainland prisons, where he finally decided to get help. He spent his prison time filling out applications for rehab and entered the Maple Ridge Treatment Centre in 2007.
It was also around that time he contacted then-Liberal MLA Lorne Mayencourt, who'd been pushing his own government for more addiction-treatment programs, and offered to help him in his efforts.
"We loved him [Smith] at the legislature," Mayencourt said. "He was outgoing, fun-loving and extremely talented. To see him so thin, scurrying around the streets dealing drugs, was just heartbreaking. Then he phoned me and said, 'Look, I'm in this recovery program' and I said, 'Thank God.'" In December, Mayencourt offered Smith the position of director of the Baldy Hughes Addiction Treatment Centre, a nonprofit "therapeutic community" Mayencourt founded in Prince George 17 months ago.
Smith, who has now been free and clear of drugs and alcohol for two years, accepted the post and is now helping other addicts to recover. He has also re-bonded with his parents and some of his old aquaintances, though many broken friendships will never be repaired.
"I lost many wonderful friends and fantastic people in my life," he said. "Hopefully, I can one day earn their respect again."