'Line in the sand': Calgary police lay pill-press possession charges for first time under new Alberta law

Calgary police say they've laid the first charges under a new section of Alberta law that made the unauthorized possession of pill presses illegal in an effort to combat the spread of illicit fentanyl.

Province restricted possession of pill-making equipment last year in effort to curb fentanyl spread

A pill press that police seized from a home in Evanston. (Calgary Police Service)

Calgary police say they've laid the first charges under a new section of Alberta law that made the unauthorized possession of pill presses illegal in an effort to combat the spread of illicit fentanyl and curb overdose deaths.

Police said Monday a man and a woman were arrested during a traffic stop on Oct. 12 after officers found 100 fentanyl pills, $58,000 in counterfeit Canadian currency and a 9-mm semi-automatic handgun in their vehicle.

The traffic stop also led police to execute a search warrant at a home in the northwest community of Evanston, where they found pill presses and other equipment related to what they described as "a fentanyl production lab."

One of the presses seized by police was capable of producing 120,000 counterfeit pills per day, according to Staff Sgt. Mark Hatchette.

"You don't know what's inside [the pills]. That's what makes this so dangerous," he said.

"We're very confident that we've stopped deaths from occurring because of this seizure."

Staff Sgt. Mark Hatchette speaks to reporters about arrests relating to a 'fentanyl production lab' that police raided in the northwest community of Evanston. (Justin Pennell/CBC)

Under legislation Alberta adopted last year, the possession of particular types of pill-making equipment is restricted to pharmacists or people holding a licence.

Bill 205, the Pharmacy and Drug (Pharmaceutical Equipment Control) Amendment Act, was a private member's bill introduced by Calgary-West Progressive Conservative MLA Mike Ellis that received unanimous support in the legislature.

"It is great to see Bill 205 doing what it was meant to do," Ellis said in a written statement Monday.

"In the fight to get the opioid epidemic under control, prevention measures can and should play a central role. This is a simple tool that law enforcement can use to prevent pills laced with fentanyl from being made and sold in Alberta, which will ultimately save lives."

Hatchette said the pill presses are legal to buy in other jurisdictions and available online.

"Unfortunately, you can purchase them," he said. "These are some things that this new legislation, provincially, addresses."

"Federally, we're waiting for the same type of legislation to come into effect," he added.

"But we're happy to say that people in Calgary, without licence, cannot possess these types of instruments."

Counterfeiting equipment seized

Inside the Evanston home, police also found 1,145 more fentanyl pills, nearly $500,000 in counterfeit Canadian and U.S. currency, several firearms and equipment to produce counterfeit currency.

That equipment included large-scale printers, uncut sheets of fake bills and enough reflective strips to produce roughly $4.5 million in counterfeit Canadian currency, police said.

Reflective strips used to make counterfeit Canadian currency were found in the home that was searched. Police said there was enough to create roughly $4.5 million in fake bills. (Calgary Police Service)

A quantity of white powder was also seized, and police said preliminary tests of the substances found at home indicate the presence of both fentanyl and W18, a narcotic described as 100 more potent than fentanyl.

The firearms seized from the home were later found to have been stolen from a home in the nearby community of Panorama.

Police said the operation that led to the arrests began in late September after police received a tip about two people running a "dial-a-dope" (drug delivery) business in the city.

Organized crime ties investigated

Hatchette said police are investigating potential ties between the local operation and organized crime, both nationally and internationally.

"I would consider this a mid-level bust — people that work for major organized criminal organizations across the world," he said.

Two Calgary residents were arrested: Behrooz Rafizada, 27, and his wife, Jocelynn Aida Saliba, 28.

They face 59 charges between them related to firearms, drug trafficking, production of a controlled substance and counterfeiting offences.

Those charges include the offences under the new Pharmacy and Drugs Act for possession of the pill-making equipment.

The penalties under the new law include a fine of up to $50,000 and for a first offence, a fine of up to $125,000 and up to six months in jail for a second offence, and a fine of up to $375,000 and up to one year in jail for a third offence.

Deaths from apparent drug overdoses related to fentanyl, by health region and quarter, from Jan. 1, 2016 to Jun. 30, 2017. (Alberta Health)

Alberta Health says 609 people have died in the province from apparent overdoses related to fentanyl between Jan. 1, 2016 and June 30, 2017.

That's an average of more than one fentanyl death per day.

"We're in a new time," Hatchette said. "This is a different drug culture, a different drug climate for policing."

In addition to those struggling with addiction, the illicit production of fentanyl and similar drugs presents a risk to first responders and the general public, he said, as exposure to even a tiny amount of powerful opiods can be fatal.

He said police will continue to target producers.

"This is our line in the sand," he said. "We no longer will allow this to happen in our city."