Nova Scotia

'Shocking' amounts of cocaine a bigger problem than opioids in Cape Breton, say police

Cape Breton police say extra funds through CERB and extra time spent at home during the pandemic has resulted in more people turning to cocaine.

People who use the powerfully addictive stimulant don't always know what the drug is being cut with

Cocaine has become increasingly popular for all walks of life in Cape Breton, say police. (photopixel / Shutterstock)

This story is part of a series by CBC Cape Breton examining the use of street drugs on the island. Click here to read more stories in this series.

While Canada fights a deadly opioid crisis that public health officials say has only worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, a different kind of drug is taking hold in Cape Breton with a pervasiveness that has stunned even law enforcement.

Cocaine has been on the island for decades, but it has edged out other illegal and illicit substances in the past year and a half to become one of the most popular drugs in Cape Breton, leading to addiction and, in some cases, death.

"I think the best word to describe it is shocking when you actually see how much cocaine there is in this community and how many different groups of people that are trafficking in it," said Const. John Campbell, a street crimes officer with the Cape Breton Regional Police Service.

Opioids have been blamed for thousands of deaths in Canada since the pandemic began, but Campbell said police in Cape Breton have actually seen a decrease in opioid use on the street. 

In its place, cocaine has emerged as the preferred drug for various walks of life.

The headquarters of the Cape Breton Regional Police Service in Sydney. (Matthew Moore/CBC)

Cape Breton police would not provide CBC News with numbers showing how much more cocaine they're seeing.

But police say they believe the rise in cocaine use on the island has been fuelled by government financial assistance handed out during the pandemic. Campbell said the Canada Emergency Response Benefit — the federal government's primary source of support for households affected by the pandemic — has resulted in some locals purchasing street drugs with the extra cash.

Cocaine has become a weekend party drug for many Cape Bretoners and that troubles Campbell.

"They're at home and they're having drinks and then, you know, they're having a hard time staying awake," he said. "So they do a bump of cocaine like it's nothing, like they're having a coffee."

In August alone, six people were treated in hospital in Cape Breton as a result of infections from injecting the stimulant, said Giulia Di Giorgio, chair of the Cape Breton Association of People Empowering Drug Users.

Of those six, one person died and two had to be admitted to the ICU, said Di Giorgio.

A plastic bag of cocaine seized by Cape Breton Regional Police. (Matthew Moore/CBC)

There are also concerns about what cocaine might be cut with. Cutting refers to the diluting of a drug with another substance. Dealers do this to increase the volume of their product in order to make more money.

"The cocaine has been coming back testing positive for fentanyl, which is really scary," said Di Giorgio, whose organization advocates for harm reduction and the safe supply of drugs.

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that Health Canada says is 20 to 40 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine. A few grains are enough to cause death. 

For those who end up hooked on cocaine but can't afford their new habit, petty crime sometimes becomes the only way to get the money they need.

"People go to No Frills [grocery store] and they'll steal hundreds of dollars in meat products and then take it to a drug dealer's house in exchange for cocaine," said Campbell, adding that "it all starts at organized crime."

Ever since the legalization of marijuana in 2018, Campbell said cocaine has become the drug of choice in Cape Breton's illegal drug trade. It is being pushed by low-level street dealers and motorcycle gangs, which have had an increased presence on the island in the last few years.

Cape Breton Regional Police show a vest that was seized from a biker gang. (Erin Pottie/CBC)

Late in 2019, Cape Breton police seized over $100,000 in drugs, including cocaine, along with weapons from men connected to the Outlaws and Black Pistons motorcycle gangs.

Campbell said motorcycle gangs traffic and sell drugs to make money. To better blend in with the community, they run charitable events and other activities.

"They put themselves out there fundraising and ... go and support children that are being bullied in schools," he said. "Then the general public, who don't really know them, think that they're decent people."

Recruiters involved in organized crime are also infiltrating local schools by enlisting minors to sell drugs to their peers or groom other youth, as young as Grade 10 students, to become dealers.

"Adults recruit youth to sell because of the market demand in schools," said Const. Danielle Campbell, a school liaison officer with Cape Breton police.

A needle drop box located in Glace Bay, N.S. (Matthew Moore/CBC)

While cocaine is big on the streets, she said the drugs being sold at schools are mainly marijuana and prescription pills, which have become a hot item for students in Cape Breton. 

"Students are also using or abusing pharmaceutical drugs, which are typically prescribed for ADHD, such as Ritalin and Adderall," she said.

Police say they're trying to shut down outlaw motorcycle gangs and other organized crime that put drugs on the street, but they are up against a multibillion-dollar global industry.

John Campbell said people should talk to their loved ones about drug use, while Di Giorgio said people who are using drugs can reach out to the Ally Centre in Sydney to get their drugs tested to make sure they're safe.

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