Ralph Goodale says Mounties need more cash to catch fentanyl traffickers
Too many officers diverted from crime probes to focus on national security, public safety minister
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told CBC News the RCMP needs more money to combat Canada's deadly trade in fentanyl.
Hundreds of Canadians died after overdosing on the synthetic opioid last year — 213 in Alberta in the first nine months of 2015 alone, according to the province's health service.
In the wake of the October 2014 attack on Parliament Hill, the RCMP reassigned 600 Mounties from criminal investigations and organized crime files to national security duties.
In the meantime, an RCMP report prepared for the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and obtained by CBC News describes how organized crime groups started importing powdered fentanyl from China, established high volume, pill-making labs and expanded trafficking across the country.
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"That obviously was dealing with an immediate crisis and it was a classic example, sadly, of having to rob Peter to pay Paul," said Goodale.
He adds that has to change.
"So I'll be working with the force and Treasury Board and Finance to make sure that we've got the RCMP properly financed for all of the activities that we expect them to undertake and they're not put in this invidious position of having to short-change one field of very important activity to finance another field of very important activity."
One of the Liberals' campaign promises was to work with provinces and municipalities to form regional task forces to deal with illegal activities, "and this may be one initiative where we can work together focussed on one problem — fentanyl," Goodale said.
The whole job needs to get done and we need to consider the financing of the force in that way.- Ralph Goodale, public safety minister
Fentanyl is a legitimate drug, most often used to control severe pain in cancer patients through time-release patches stuck to the skin. Stolen patches or those "redirected" by people with a prescription made up the bulk of the street-level drug supply, especially in Ontario and Quebec, until 2013-14.
Organized crime and pill-making labs
Then organized crime, mostly in Western Canada started importing pure powdered fentanyl from China and setting up clandestine pill-making labs.
According to the RCMP report, the "exponential growth in scale of organized crime involvement in fentanyl trafficking" is largely due to wide profit margins.
The Canadian Pharmacists Association estimates fentanyl is 80 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Traffickers only need small quantities to make lots of pills. Police have warned the public that ingesting just a pinch of the drug could cause a fatal overdose.
The RCMP report highlights how, "illicit synthetic drug tablets are produced in domestic clandestine tableting facilities, many resembling OxyContin 80 mg tablets containing fentanyl or fentanyl analogues."
Marie Agioritis of Saskatoon believes one of those pills killed her 19-year-old son Kelly Best.
"They were going around the community, green pills with 80 on them, that made it look like they were a 80 mg OxyContin. Kids started to use them recreationally."
It happened last year when Agioritis, her husband and their younger children went away for a weekend. It was the first time the family had left their older son home alone.
Agioritis has since learned that Best went over to his older brother's apartment, met a dealer and bought a single green pill. His brother supervised Best as he injested half of it. The next morning when he was on his own, Best took the other half. He fell asleep and stopped breathing.
"You know when you see the movies and a mother finds out that one of her kids has died. It's actually exactly like that. I don't remember because I hit the floor and screaming and crying," Agioritis said.
Possible restrictions on pill presses
The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse has strong anecdotal evidence that many of those who fatally overdosed on fentanyl believed they were using heroin, oxycodone, cocaine or some other substance.
Goodale said he'll also look into restricting the importation of industrial pill presses that allow crime groups to transform powdered fentanyl into lookalike OxyContin. One option would be to require someone to have a licence to bring the machines into Canada.
"That's one of the dimensions that might be a possibility," he told CBC News.
Before March 2014, Canada Border Services Agency reported no seizures of pure fentanyl. Since that time, the RCMP report notes that CBSA has intercepted dozens of shipments at the Vancouver International Mail Centre and Vancouver International Airport. Many packages were falsely declared to be substances such as paint.
Health Canada has already moved to make a pharmaceutical antidote to fentanyl available to people without a prescription. By making naloxone an over-the-counter drug, it is hoped people who use fentanyl or any other opiate will carry the antidote in case of an overdose.
Another measure now in place in Ontario seeks to stop the illicit trade in transdermal fentanyl patches. A private member's bill passed last month now requires people with prescriptions for the patches to turn in all of their old patches at the pharmacy before picking up new ones.
Marie Agioritis welcomes those measures all while mourning her son, whom she describes as having been sweet, funny and a flirt with girls at school.
She said talking about what happened to her family makes her feel a little bit better.
"Those emotions are there always, you just learn to live with them. But I'm committed to making a difference so my son doesn't die in vain. I know far too many parents who've been in my shoes."