RCMP gag order issued after BC NDP catch heat for diverted safe supply

Written By Fran Yanor

In the wake of several high-profile police drug seizures of suspected safer supply that put the BC NDP government on the defensive last month, BC RCMP “E” division issued a gag order on detachments, directing them to run all communications on “hot button” public safety issues through headquarters in the lead-up to the provincial election.

“It is very clear we are in a pre-election time period and the topic of ‘public safety’ is very much an issue that governments and voters are discussing,” writes a senior RCMP communications official in an email dated Mar. 11 in what appears to have gone out to all BC RCMP detachments.

Media are not specifically mentioned in the memo, but the directive has effectively restricted frontline and senior detachment police from talking freely to journalists, including Northern Beat, about important public safety issues, namely whether investigations have uncovered highly addictive, government-funded safer supply pills in their drug seizure operations.

“The requirement for us at E Div to brief up and out has almost become an hourly task,” the writer said, apparently referencing the need for communications staff to continually brief senior RCMP leadership and top officials at the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General. 

“It is very clear we are in a pre-election time period.”

RCMP senior ‘E” division official

The memo directs detachments to route all outgoing communications and refer all incoming inquiries on “hot button issues” through central communications command, including those inquires coming from communications representatives of the provincial government, ministries and elected officials.

Hot button issues were identified as drug seizures, decriminalization, gun violence, mental health related calls, violent and repeat offenders, bail reform, and more.

“Please also use your judgement on topics not identified here that have the potential to be controversial or high-profile,” the writer said advising recipients to remain factual, avoid editorial comments and refrain from criticizing others.  

BC NDP under fire

In the lead up to the RCMP memo, the BC NDP were under heavy political fire from critics on their safe supply file after two BC detachments reported seizing thousands of highly addictive opioids believed to have been diverted from the federal and provincially approved drug program. 

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. 

Safe, or safer, supply was introduced four years ago in B.C., and seven years ago in Ontario, for people with severe addictions with the goal of replacing their reliance on unregulated illicit drugs and reducing overdoses. 

Since then, several low-quality studies have purported a range of unproven benefits, but there is no scientific evidence the safer supply program has achieved either. 

Journalists have found evidence of drug diversion and clinical addictions physicians working with drug users have long warned that some of the millions of pills that have been prescribed under B.C.’s program were being sold to buy illicit drugs, and that the diverted safer supply was creating new opioid users.

Canadian addictions doctors have petitioned federal minister of Addictions Ya’ara Saks to stop the program or ensure consumption of safer supply drugs is more closely supervised. Patients currently consume the drugs unwitnessed. Saks said criticisms of the program are rooted in fear and stigma.

We have noted an alarming trend

Until recently, there was limited evidence significant amounts of safer supply drugs were being diverted to organized crime and the illicit drug market.

On Feb. 28, Campbell River announced a large seizure of pharmaceuticals along with several kilograms of fentanyl, methamphetamine and cocaine. A previous seizure had also secured suspected safer supply.

Then on Mar. 7, the Prince George RCMP issued a press release about two investigations that yielded more than 10,000 pharmaceutical pills. A third seizure, earlier in 2023, netted additional pills believed to be diverted from the program.

Pills seized during a Prince George police investigation, including thousands of suspected safe supply drugs. [Photo PG RCMP]

We have noted an alarming trend over the last year in the amount prescription drugs located during drug trafficking investigations, noting they are being used as a form of currency to purchase more potent, illicit street drugs,” stated media relations officer, Cpl. Jennifer Cooper, in the release.

“Organized crime groups are actively involved in the redistribution of safe supply and prescription drugs, some of which are then moved out of British Columbia and resold. The reselling of prescription drugs significantly increases the profits realized by organized crime.”

“Organized crime groups are actively involved in the redistribution of safe supply.”

Jennifer Cooper

Prince George RCMP senior investigator, Scott Cundy told Northern Beat in an earlier interview, “our investigative theory is that these drugs are being all bulk-collected and then actually shipped out-of-province because there’s no reason for these pills to be hoarded in that quantity.”

Between the two detachments, they’d seized at least 18,000 pills combined in the past year, more than half of which is suspected hydromorphone/Dilaudid. 

Kelowna RCMP also noted a seizure involving hydromorphone, Dilaudid and oxycodone pills, all prescribed in the program, and Nanaimo RCMP later reported seizing “thousands to tens of thousands” of suspected safer supply hydromorphone since the program began in March 2020, according to a senior officer with the detachment.

Critics put BC government on defensive

But it was the Prince George press release that stirred up a political storm for the B.C. government.

Alberta Addictions Minister Dan Williams challenged B.C. to join his government in asking Health Canada for a chemical identifier in the drugs to prove diversion wasn’t happening.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith released a statement referencing “multiple reports of drug seizures …  clearly show organized crime is trafficking and profiting from diverted “safe supply,” calling on B.C. to rein in the program. Smith asked for an emergency meeting between the two governments. 

“Multiple reports of drug seizures …  show organized crime … profiting from diverted ‘safe supply.'”

Danielle Smith

Federal Conservative Party of Canada Opposition Leader, Pierre Poilievre joined the fray, reiterating that his party, if elected government in 2025, will cancel the safer supply program outright.

For several days Eby and his ministers of health, addictions and public safety denied, deflected and downplayed diversion issues. 

Although several times conceding diversion might be taking place, they stopped short of committing to chemically trace the drugs, pause the program, investigate, monitor, or halt unwitnessed dosing of the drugs.

‘No evidence of widespread diversion’ because no one is collecting data, says critic

Then on Mar. 11, RCMP Asst. Commissioner John Brewer released a statement that one government source, who asked not to be identified, said was hurriedly crafted that morning.

Acknowledging “notable” quantities of safer supply drugs seized, Brewer stated “there is currently no evidence to support a widespread diversion of safer supply drugs in the illicit market in BC or Canada.”

When Northern Beat asked a senior officer the definition of ‘evidence’ and what would be considered ‘widespread,’ he shrugged, as if to say, it was anyone’s guess.

B.C. Solicitor General/Public Safety Minister, Mike Farnworth, and B.C. Addictions Minister Jennifer Whiteside immediately and repeatedly amplified Brewer’s statement to the media and in the legislative chamber.

This new story of no evidence of widespread diversion soon made headlines across the country.

Brewer’s statement had single-handedly redirected the narrative.

Later that afternoon, BC United critic Elenore Sturko, a retired RCMP officer, said she’d discovered why there was no evidence of widespread diversion – the police have not been asked by government to collect it.

“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,” Sturko said in the legislature after Addictions Minister Jennifer Whiteside several times refused to commit the government to collecting data.

“I don’t understand the hesitancy to commit to data collection.”

Elenore Sturko

A day after the statement from RCMP headquarters, Solicitor General Farnworth reneged on a Feb. 29 commitment to Northern Beat to have his ministry collect and share data on how much hydromorphone had been seized by police in B.C. 

Instead, his office advised in an email that all questions on specific seizure data should now be directed to individual police detachments.

At that point, Northern Beat had been conducting its own investigation and was in discussions with numerous detachments that appeared cooperative to sharing information about their drug seizures, when several unexpectedly and abruptly redirected inquiries to RCMP headquarters. A few cited an internal directive, and one provided a copy of it. 

To date, despite the RCMP and BC government pronouncements of no evidence of widespread diversion, neither the Solicitor General nor RCMP headquarters have provided any data to show how much suspected safer supply has actually been seized and how they know diversion is not a widespread problem.

Monitoring safer supply doesn’t have to be complicated 

A Mar. 12 email from the Solicitor General/Public Safety Minister’s office may have conceded the lapse in safer supply and diversion data – as pointed out by Sturko, the Alberta premier, B.C.’s Auditor General and others – and relented slightly on the monitoring front. 

The email stated the ministry had contacted the RCMP “to express that all police should have a mechanism in place to confirm and track diverted safe supply.”

However when RCMP E division communications was asked about the mechanism on Apr. 3, it was unclear if the organization had even been informed of what the minister’s office said on behalf of the Solicitor General three weeks earlier. 

“All police should have a mechanism in place to confirm and track diverted safe supply.”

Solicitor General’s office

A RCMP spokesperson was unable to confirm what the proposed mechanism is, how it will work, or what data it intends to track. 

“There are some inherent complexities involved in determining whether certain seized prescription drugs are safer supply, or something else,” an emailed response from RCMP E division communications read, adding ambiguously, “We are working with partners and stakeholders, in both policing and health care, to gather the necessary information to move ahead.”

Once the mechanism is in place, detachments will be informed of the process and their reporting responsibilities, the spokesperson stated.

According to police sources and Sturko, the process doesn’t have to be administratively complicated or onerous for police. It could be as simple as officers ticking a ‘suspected safer supply’ box, along with such things as the type of drug and where it was diverted.

Meanwhile, the media and public remain in the dark about how much taxpayer-funded addictive drugs has been sold by patients into organized crime drug markets and how much safer supply has been seized by police.

Even RCMP officers on the frontlines who want to speak to the media, because they believe diversion is a serious public safety issue causing harm in their communities, report feeling pressure to keep silent on “a hot button topic in an election year.”