More BC police detachments report having seized suspected safe supply

Written By Fran Yanor

“Anything that’s being diverted and then resold, is being sold with a profit going to organized crime groups.”

–Rob Christenson

B.C.’s premier and ministers spent days defending, denying and deflecting after police in two cities seized thousands of drugs believed to be diverted from their government’s publicly funded safer supply program. 

Now, Northern Beat has learned a third RCMP detachment has also seized hydromorphone pills, along with a fourth that has seized “thousands, if not tens of thousands” of suspected safe supply drugs over the past four years.

“The safe supply is making its way into the [illicit] market in Nanaimo,” Sgt. Rob Christenson said in an interview on Monday, revealing his detachment has seized “thousands to tens of thousands” of hydromorphone pills believed to be safe supply since the program began in March 2020.

Two of those seizures in the past 10 months involved organized crime members and included bottles labelled as safe supply, but police can’t share specifics since both cases are before the courts, Christenson said.

“It’s very similar to what you’re probably seeing in the other communities. The safe supply is being prescribed and it is very quickly being sold or traded for the hard drugs in the fentanyl categories,” he said.

“Safe supply is … very quickly being sold or traded for the hard drugs in the fentanyl categories.”

Rob Christenson

Safe, or safer, supply was introduced four years ago in B.C. and eight years ago in Ontario, with the goal of replacing people’s reliance on unregulated illicit drugs and reducing overdoses. Since then, there is no scientific evidence the safer supply program has achieved either.

More than 40,000 Canadians have died of toxic drug overdose since a public health emergency was declared in B.C. in 2016. Of those fatalities, about 14,000 were British Columbians.

Hydromorphone, an addictive opioid more powerful than heroin, is the main drug prescribed under safer supply, although other opioids like fentanyl, oxycodone and morphine, along with stimulants and benzodiazepines are also provided. They all deliver a euphoric high and are consumed unwitnessed. Addictions doctors have warned that some of the millions of pills that have been prescribed under the program are being diverted, creating new opioid users.

Suspected safe supply pills, along with prescription bottles, were seized in a drug operation by Prince George RCMP last month. [Photo PG RCMP]

“No matter who is selling these substances, whether they know it or not, they’re attached to an organized crime group at the other end,” Christenson said. “Anything that’s being diverted and then resold, is being sold with a profit going to organized crime groups.”

Diverted safe supply seized on First Nation territory

Until a few days ago, B.C. politicians and senior public health officials either denied diversion exists or downplayed how it might be impacting wider community safety. B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said in a press conference last month that diversion was happening but called it “neither good nor bad,” even while conceding little is known about where the diverted drugs are going and to whom.

Then RCMP in Campbell River and Prince George revealed where some of those drugs have gone. In those two cities, drug seizures in the last year have garnered more than 18,000 pills, the majority suspected safe supply drugs. 

The Kelowna police also noted hydromorphone pills in their drug operations.

The most recent Campbell River seizure included several kgs of fentanyl, methamphetamine and cocaine, along with 3,500 hydromorphone pills.

“We have significant evidence to support – because it’s still before the courts, I can’t really get into what that necessarily would be – but I’m very confident in saying that they were diverted from safe supply,” Campbell River RCMP Insp. Jeff Preston said in an interview on Monday. 

“I’m very confident in saying that they were diverted from safe supply.”

Jeff Preston

The drugs were seized on We Wei Kai Nation territory, near Campbell River. 

Chief Ronnie Chickite, said his community was grateful to the RCMP for their work, but that the amount of illicit drugs and the presence of so many safe supply pills was stunning. 

“The safe supply stuff was shocking for me, to be honest, I didn’t realize how bad it was,” Chickite said. “It’s very disturbing knowing that this safe supply is out there. Especially in a small little town like ours.”

“It’s very disturbing knowing that this safe supply is out there.”

Ronnie Chickite

We Wai Kai has more than 1,200 members in B.C., with about 600 residents living on the nation’s reserve on Quadra Island and their gated community in Quinsam, minutes from Campbell River. The nation is prosperous, with low unemployment, a conscientious membership, and compared to other communities, minimal alcohol and drug addictions issues, Chickite said. It has had incidents of low-level drug dealing like anywhere else, but nothing like this.

“This was definitely the largest bust we’ve ever seen on our territory.”

‘We believe safe supply is coming to Alberta’

The size of the suspected safe supply in the Campbell River and Prince George drug seizures also caught Alberta’s Mental Health and Addictions Minister Dan Williams and his boss Alberta Premier Danielle Smith off guard, both of whom called on the B.C. government to rein in its safe supply program. 

“We believe that safe supply is coming to Alberta,” Williams told Northern Beat in an interview last week, calling on B.C. to join his government in advocating for a chemical identifier to be added to safe supply drugs.  

Previously, both B.C. Addictions Minister Jennifer Whiteside and Health Minister Adrian Dix sidestepped questions about monitoring diversion or adding a chemical marker to determine where the drugs were being diverted. 

A day after Prince George RCMP issued a notice of their most recent drug seizure, Alberta’s premier released a statement about “the serious concern of diversion becoming evident and the reality that these drugs may be ending up for resale in Alberta.” She asked for a meeting with Alberta’s counterparts in B.C. 

Government pushes back on drug diversion concerns

In response, B.C. Premier David Eby, his Addictions Minister Jennifer Whiteside and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth alternately defended safe supply, conceded diversion occurs, deflected criticisms of the program, and denied drug diversion is a problem.

At different points over the last few days, Eby committed to address diversion “if it is happening,” but warned people will die without it. He called safer supply “an essential tool … to keep people alive, engage with them, and get them into treatment.” But that didn’t mean he accepted diversion that put communities or individuals at risk, he said.

The BC government wants to address issues of diversion, but ending the safe supply program would put people at risk, says Premier David Eby. [Photo BC Government]

Eby promised Smith his government would “receive any information or evidence that they have on diversion, keeping in mind that there is always a risk of diversion of prescription medication to people that they were not intended for.”  He then noted most hydromorphone in B.C. is prescribed for purposes other than drug addiction, a point repeated by both Whiteside and Farnworth. 

“[It] doesn’t matter, the source of the diversion,” continued Eby. “If there is diversion from British Columbia, from a pharmacy, from individuals, we want to address that issue. Because we want to keep people safe. And we want to make sure that we’re addressing the toxic drug crisis.”

“If there is diversion from British Columbia, from a pharmacy, from individuals, we want to address that issue.”

David Eby

When asked about Conservative Party of Canada Leader Pierre Poilievre’s promise to scrap safe supply if his party forms government in the next federal election, Eby said, “The people who suggest they would end this program, are not going to save a single life. And in fact, it will put significant numbers of people at risk.” 

Farnworth, on the other hand, pushed back, “Pierre Poilievre, he likes to make slogans, but he doesn’t really pose any solutions.”

While Eby was conciliatory to Smith, Farnworth scolded Alberta’s premier, essentially dismissing her concerns about diversion of safe supply drugs into Alberta as being hasty and ill-informed. 

“Basing your statements on one single news report without waiting for all the information is not, I wouldn’t say, the right way to go about things,” he said. 

Eby said his government would take action if any issues were identified by police. Shortly after, the solicitor general declared in a media scrum and in the chamber to legislators, that he’d spoken with RCMP headquarters and learned, straight from the commanding officer of the province’s ‘E’ Division, “there is no evidence of widespread diversion on unsafe supply.”  

Later in the day, Assistant Commissioner of BC RCMP, John Brewer, released a statement saying while recent investigations involved “notable quantities” of seized safer supply, “there is currently no evidence to support a widespread diversion of safer supply drugs in the illicit market in BC or Canada.” The RCMP would now work to “increase awareness” to police officers to help them better identify safer supply and continue working with partners to test, identify and source the drugs, Brewer stated.

Minister won’t commit to collecting data on diversion

BC United Addictions Critic, Elenore Sturko, a retired RCMP officer, said there’s no evidence of widespread diversion, because government never asked the RCMP to track any data on seized safe supply. 

In the legislature this week, Sturko asked the addictions minister if her government would work with police to analyze seizure data to compare the presence of hydromorphone before and after safer supply was ramped up in 2020.

Whiteside said it was “not appropriate for government to direct the RCMP with respect to how they investigate,” then proceeded to question the Prince George RCMP’s rationale for calling thousands of suspected safe supply pills ‘notable.’ She focussed on the lesser portion of seized pills that were not safer supply, and seemed to question the investigative methods and the evidence police had gathered. Government hadn’t been advised if the pills matched the pill bottles and the composition of the drugs had yet to be verified, she said. There are also a lot of counterfeit pills in the market, she added.

Sturko tried again. “Will this government and this ministry commit to working with [the police] … to develop a system of reporting?” Not by telling them how to investigate, but by asking them to collect data that would reveal how much safe supply was being seized, “then when we [talk] about … what is ‘widespread’ or what is ‘notable,’ we would actually know, instead of intentionally misleading the citizens of British Columbia to believe that you have collected data that you haven’t.”

“This government hasn’t investigated whether or not there’s diversion.”

Elenore Stuko

Whiteside skirted the question a second time and cautioned Sturko not to imply government was trying to mislead people. “When we read a statement from the RCMP saying, ‘There is currently no evidence to support a widespread diversion of the safer supply drugs in the illicit market in B.C. or Canada,’ I take them at their word on that,” Whiteside said. 

Sturko persisted. “There is no evidence, I would suggest, because it wasn’t asked to be collected. I don’t understand the hesitancy to commit to data collection. [Police] are not going to develop templates and they are not going to collect information randomly, unless it is requested.”

Afterwards, Sturko expressed her exasperation with the government’s resistance to collect data on diverted safe supply. 

Police could collect and report it very easily without adding to their workload, she said. Using existing templates, it could be as simple as asking investigating officers to check boxes about types of evidence found and whether it was suspected safe supply, similar to how government has expanded data collection on weapons, domestic violence or racialized populations. 

“I find it concerning that it seems to be, in my opinion, sort of a wordplay to imply there’s been some type of investigation, when the reality is that this government hasn’t investigated whether or not there’s diversion.”