'Scare tactic' manslaughter charge won't deter fentanyl dealers, lawyer warns

Charging an Edmonton man with manslaughter in a deadly fentanyl overdose will do little to deter drug dealers from trafficking the potent opiate, warns an Edmonton defence lawyer.

'People are dealing it more than ever. They don't care about this. Not even close'

Edmonton police have laid their first manslaughter charge in connection with fentanyl, a deadly street drug which is becoming more prevalent in Alberta. (CBC)
Charging an Edmonton man with manslaughter in a deadly fentanyl overdose will do little to deter drug dealers from trafficking the potent opiate, warns an Edmonton defence lawyer.
Szymon Kalich died of a fentanyl overdose on Jan. 27. (Kalich Family)

Jordan Yarmey, 25, was charged Monday, nine months after the body of 33-year-old Szymon Kalich was discovered inside the hallway of a south Edmonton residence.

It's the first time Edmonton police have laid a manslaughter charge in connection with an overdose death.

"I think it more of a knee jerk reaction," said lawyer Jordan Stuffco of the charges, during an interview with CBC News.

"I think it is more of a scare tactic and to try to get the public to have more awareness of this."

Kalich was discovered dead Jan. 27 in the Laurel neighbourhood. Toxicology reports confirmed he had consumed a deadly amount of fentanyl, a drug considered 100 times more potent than morphine.

'Deterrents hardly have an effect'

In announcing the charges Wednesday, police say they wanted to reassure families of fentanyl victims that investigators take the cases seriously and look for evidence to lay charges whenever warranted.

But Stuffco says if police are looking to send a message, it likely won't resonate with the people who are actually pushing the drug.

"Deterrents are factors in the Criminal Code when we look at sentencing and that's what judges consider," said Stuffco.

"But I think there is strong evidence that deterrents hardly have an effect when this kind of thing is done.

"As if a drug dealer is going to say, 'I'm not going to deal drugs because I could go to jail.' People are dealing it more than ever. They don't care about this. Not even close. Zero."

'Courts seem to be somewhat clear'

Although the charges are new for Edmonton police, Stuffco says legal precedents have been established in jurisdictions across the country. 

There are similar cases of drug dealers being charged with manslaughter in overdose deaths dating back to the 1993 R v Creighton case.

In what is now considered a landmark decision by the Supreme Court of Canada, Marc Creighton was charged with manslaughter after he injected his friend with cocaine on Oct 27, 1989.  She began convulsing and died.

"The Supreme Court upheld a conviction of a drug dealer who had injected cocaine into his friend's arm, and this was consensual of course," Stuffco said.

"But the court held that a reasonable person would have foreseen the serious bodily harm that would result with injecting that cocaine."

Since then, similar charges have been laid across Canada, including another high profile case in the Manitoba Court of Appeal.

R v Hass found a drug dealer guilty of manslaughter, even though it was the recipient's choice to take the drug. 

The June 2016 decision centred around a 47-year-old man who admitted to providing a 20-year-old woman with morphine pills.

"There is debate amongst lawyers on just how dicey this can be, but the courts seem to be somewhat clear," said Stuffco.

"Basically, it's a reasonable person standard. So you stand in the shoes of the person supplying the noxious illegal substance, and if there is bodily harm that`s reasonably foreseeable, and you create that situation ... you could be held liable for manslaughter." 

'We have an epidemic'

Stuffco would rather see law enforcement agencies focus on public education, not incarceration, in order to contend with the rising death toll fentanyl has wrought in Alberta and amongst his own clients. 

"I've been practising law for about 13 years. The last year of my practice, unfortunately, I've had a handful of clients pass away from fentanyl use. 

"And it's quite sad to see. It definitely appears we have an epidemic or a big issue going on in our communities throughout Canada."

The opioid killed 153 Albertans in the first half of 2016.  In 2015, 274 Albertans died from fentanyl overdoses — a sharp increase from 120 deaths in 2014 and 66 deaths the year before.

About the Author

Wallis Snowdon


Wallis Snowdon is a digital journalist with CBC Edmonton. She has nearly a decade of experience reporting behind her. Originally from New Brunswick, her journalism career has taken her from Nova Scotia to Fort McMurray. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca

With files from Nola Keeler