By James Rose
Roughly one month ago, the British Columbia Court of Appeal ruled drug dealers selling fentanyl should receive sentences of up to thirty-six months. The ruling upped the ante on penalties faced by those convicted of trafficking the illicit pharmaceutical making them three times longer than those for street-level dealers of other drugs. Most agree that the harsher penalty was done to recognize the growing seriousness of the fentanyl problem facing British Columbia.
As was reported in the Globe and Mail immediately following the ruling, “the judgment from the B.C. Court of Appeal is the latest in a series of rulings as courts in several provinces grapple with whether dealers of fentanyl, which has fuelled a worsening overdose crisis across the country, deserve stricter penalties than those trafficking cocaine or heroin.”
For each candidate currently running for the Columbia River-Revelstoke MLA seat, the court’s ruling resonated strongly but each had a different reaction to its overall effectiveness.
“Drug-related overdoses are sweeping across North America, and while there are no easy answers to this crisis, we are taking unprecedented steps to try and keep people alive, while pursuing long-term solutions to get them on a path to recovery,” said Liberal candidate Doug Clovechok. “This strategy requires concerted action by all levels of government, communities, and families.”
Clovechok pointed out in an email conversation that the government has already taken swfit action on the health care front with regards to the fentanyl problem by “declaring a public health state of emergency, training thousands of individuals to recognize overdoses and reverse them with naloxone, and providing access to overdose prevention sites in areas of highest need.” Adding, “we [the incumbent Liberal party] have also invested $100 million to fund a comprehensive acute and long term strategy to combat the overdose crisis, spearheaded by our health and criminal justice Expert Joint Task Force.”
NDP candidate Gerry Taft however doesn’t see the ruling as enough of a solution. “The criminal justice system isn’t going to solve this crisis alone,” said Mr. Taft. “There are serious issues with legal prescription drugs being misused as well. We need to look at addiction as a community health issue, not strictly a criminal one.”
But Taft does still think that proper investigation and criminal sentencing can help. “Particularly if it restricts supply and access to illegal and misused opioids,” he said. “However, we know that ‘tough on drugs’ sentencing approaches have not been very successful in the United States. We need to focus on the root issues surrounding the demand for the drugs, including cycles of addiction, poverty, mental health and others.”
Green Party candidate Samson Boyer on the other hand thinks provincial policy and lawmakers are missing the point. “The only way to truly deal with the fentanyl crisis is to legalize and regulate,” said Boyer. “Drug use is inevitable, providing access to clean drugs with predictable effects can help mitigate impact of deadly ones such as fentanyl.”
Boyer recognizes that his position may be rather unconventional. “I realize that legalization of drugs such as cocaine and heroin is controversial. The fact is, we can’t keep doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result,” said Boyer. “A ‘war on drugs’ approach has been proven, over and over, to cost money and lives with little, or nothing, to show for it.”
Independent candidate Justin Hooles meanwhile thinks that the ruling is a good start for dealing with the fentanyl problem. “I think harsher penalties is a start, but 18 to 36 months may still be on the short side depending on the case,” said Hooles. “I think we should consider in which form the drug is being found, when making these calls. If dealers make the decision to sell it, but are upfront about what it is, then purchasers are making their own choice and I believe, in this case, it should be treated as the distribution of a controlled substance.”
Hooles also noted “if [traffickers] are lacing other drugs with fentanyl, or are using any other method of selling it to a unknowing buyer, I think this should be treated as a far greater crime — debatably conspiracy to commit murder or perhaps even attempted murder — in cases like this 36 months is simply not enough.”
Yet despite the stiffer penalty, one may still wonder how much a provincial government can really do to address the problems surrounding the trafficking and use and abuse of illegal drugs like fentanyl.
“Sentencing is a federal issue but we have asked more of the federal government in response to this crisis, including establishing a national overdose surveillance system, enhancing criminal sanctions for production and adding back resources for RCMP in B.C.,” said Clovechok. “Our B.C. Liberal government has worked with the federal government on a national approach to public safety and law enforcement, included the regulation of pill presses and enhanced border controls to intercept and block toxic drugs like fentanyl and carfentanil.”
Taft however thinks the Liberals have fallen short on their commitment to solving the illegal drug problem. “We need to go beyond band-aids and sound-bites. Christy Clark talks tough, but youth addiction treatment spaces have actually been seriously cut in recent years. Front line public health staff who are giving out thousands of naloxone kits are being told not to focus so much time on the fentanyl crisis, when they should actually be getting additional support and resources to increase the important work they are doing.”
Taft believes British Columbians need more support. “We need long-term support and resources for harm reduction sites and strategies, properly resourced mental health and addiction treatment services and facilities. We need cross-discipline cooperation between community and provincial agencies. We also need a government that is serious about breaking the cycles of childhood poverty and serious about improving the conditions for low-income British Columbians.”