Safe supply now part of organized crime business, says BC RCMP commander

Written By Fran Yanor

B.C. and federal government-funded safer supply drugs are being sold into the illicit drug market and trafficked in multiple B.C. communities by organized crime, the commanding officer of the province’s RCMP “E” Division told the Canadian parliamentary health committee on Monday.

“In many cases, safer supply drugs may be diverted from one area through the criminal element to a broader marketplace, said Deputy Commissioner Dwayne McDonald, referring to recent drug seizures in Prince George and Campbell River.

McDonald’s testimony to the federal committee was the first public admission by “E” Division that trafficking of safer supply drugs is occurring across B.C. communities, but it stopped short of confirming drugs were leaving the province.

Another witness before the committee revealed what may be the first piece of data about diverted safe supply hydromorphone on a provincial scale.

Half the hydromorphone pills seized by police can be attributed to safer supply, Fiona Wilson, president of the BC Association of Chiefs of Police told the same parliamentary committee, without providing details on the number of pills and in which communities they were seized.

For six weeks, Northern Beat repeatedly asked B.C.’s Solicitor General/Public Safety Minister and RCMP “E” Division for information on seizures of safe supply, or suspected safer supply, pharmaceuticals. To date, neither has provided any statistics or data.

In an emailed response just before publication of this story, the Solicitor General Mike Farnworth’s office conceded: “The Province does not have the data you are requesting.” 

The request was for any data, as available, on police seizures of suspected safer supply in B.C. The ministry email suggested specific details on drug seizures should be directed to the police agency responsible. 

In fact, almost all the information collected and shared with the public, attributed or not, has come directly from frontline officers and press releases issued by B.C. RCMP detachments and municipal police forces.

Police findings put BC government officials on defensive

Last month, four RCMP detachments reported seizures of suspected safe supply, including Prince George and Campbell River, which seized a total of more than 10,000 hydromorphone/Dilaudid pills, the main drug prescribed in the B.C. government’s safer supply program, in the past year. 

On Mar. 7, Prince George RCMP issued a press release detailing an inventory of drugs seized and sharing their investigative theory about the trafficking of suspected safe supply out-of-province.

Based on multiple investigations and police intelligence on the mobility of organized crime groups’ inter-provincial operations and the fact safer supply products are incorporated into their business model, Prince George RCMP investigators theorized the pills were being bulk-collected for trafficking to other provincial jurisdictions where they could be sold for higher prices. 

The scale of the pill seizures and the expert conjecture of inter-provincial trafficking triggered a flurry of media reports and a political storm in Victoria. 

The news drew heavy criticism from the Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, her Addictions Minister Dan Williams  and federal Conservative Opposition Leader Pierre Poilievre.

Initially, RCMP “E” Division leaders remained silent, but B.C. Premier David Eby and his ministers of health, addictions and public safety spent several days denying, deflecting and downplaying the severity of diversion. 

Then on Mar. 11, RCMP Asst. Commissioner John Brewer issued a statement that quelled the frenzy.

Brewer acknowledged “notable” seizures of safer supply had occurred, but maintained there was “no evidence of widespread diversion” in B.C. or Canada.

The same day, the RCMP “E” Division director of communications issued an internal memo to detachments – later obtained by Northern Beat – directing all communications and inquiries be rerouted through headquarters for vetting if they involved “hot button” issues including drug seizures, decriminalization, mental health calls, violent offenders, and more. 

The memo effectively gagged frontline police and detachments from speaking publicly to the media about “controversial or high-profile” topics “in a pre-election time period.”

The next day, several detachments that had been in discussions with Northern Beat, seemingly open to gathering and sharing what seizure data they had, suddenly redirected all communications to RCMP headquarters.

‘Gag’ memo explained

This week, parliamentary health committee member, Todd Doherty, Conservative MP for Cariboo-Prince George, asked McDonald about the internal RCMP memo.

McDonald said police play an important role in public safety issues and the illicit drug challenge and it’s important they are objective. 

“So any comments that may be perceived to either support or not support, any one particular party can have a negative impact on the objective role of the police,” McDonald said.

“Our job is to get out the facts.”

This comment appears to reference PG RCMP sharing what was a professionally informed, but not Court-evidenced, investigative theory on a “hot button” election issue. 

Doherty, whose riding includes part of Prince George, then asked. “But whether it’s an election year or not, do you believe that British Columbians and Canadians deserve to know the truth about criminal activity in their communities?” 

“They absolutely do,” McDonald responded. “And we share that information regularly as you’ve seen from many news releases recently about seizures of illicit drugs and some cases, safe supply drugs.”

An investigation by the Prince George RCMP in March, subsequent to the gag memo, yielded another seizure of safe supply hydromorphone and resulted in two arrests for trafficking of illicit drugs for safe supply pharmaceuticals. Safe supply patients were not arrested. Instead, PG RCMP Insp. Darin Rappel said the detachment had reached out to their health care partners to share some of their findings.

CBC investigative reporter pulled the search warrant and revealed details of the RCMP’s surveillance operation. Safer supply patients were observed trading or selling their prescriptions for illicit drugs repeatedly over 10 days of police surveillance. Patients exited a downtown pharmacy and immediately exchanged or sold prescribed safer supply for illicit drugs, predominantly fentanyl, to dealers loitering outside.

An independent investigation by Northern Beat confirmed a similar pattern of people selling prescription-drugs-for-illicit drugs outside pharmacies in four additional cities.

Safe supply diverted to tiny Indigenous community

The RCMP have begun developing data capture and analysis to better understand diversion issues, McDonald told the committee.

The emailed response from the Solicitor General’s office said the minister had “contacted the RCMP to express that all police should have a mechanism in place to confirm and track diverted safe supply.”

McDonald said the RCMP were also collaborating with health authorities to better understand and address the situation and “working to develop training and education tools” to help frontline officers recognize diverted safer supply.

“We also recognize the frustrations and challenges felt by our indigenous communities who continue to bear a disproportionate burden under the opioid crisis,” McDonald said committing police to working with First Nations “to address the root causes of drug addiction,” and “hold accountable those who traffic drugs in these communities.” 

One of the larger safer supply drug seizures in B.C. took place on a First Nations reserve near Campbell River in February. A three-year police investigation culminated in the seizure of 3,500 hydromorphone pills and several kgs of fentanyl, cocaine and methamphetamine.

“The safe supply stuff was shocking for me, to be honest, I didn’t realize how bad it was,” We Wai Kai Chief Ronnie Chickite told Northern Beat in an earlier interview. “It’s very disturbing knowing that this safe supply is out there. Especially in a small little town like ours.”

We Wai Kai First Nation has about 1,200 members, including about 600 people living on two reserves – one on Quadra Island, the other near Campbell River.

Chikite said his community has a great relationship with the RCMP and he’s especially grateful they stuck with the investigation to bust up such a significant drug operation. 

“It’s tough for them to actually make an arrest. They need everything lined up in a row,” Chikite said, adding that decriminalization has made it harder to investigate and easier for smaller drug dealers. 

“To me, they feel like they’re untouchable because they’re legally allowed to carry and they just keep going back and forth to home or wherever there’s suppliers and make deliveries.”

 Chikite is not a fan of decriminalization or safe supply.

Millions of pills dispensed under safe supply

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 program has achieved either.

Prescribed to people with severe addiction, the program has mainly prescribed hydromorphone, but also includes oxycodone, fentanyl, benzodiazepines, along with methamphetamine and cocaine replacements. Based on the minimal available public data on safer supply, millions to tens of millions of pills have been dispensed under the province’s program so far.

Addictions doctors have long warned that hydromorphone – the euphoria-inducing heroin-type drug at the centre of the program – is being diverted, creating new opioid users.

A group of doctors from across Canada have written Federal Mental Health and Addictions Minister Ya’ara Saks several times warning her that free hydromorphone is being sold into the illicit drug market, causing new addictions.

Both Saks and B.C. premier David Eby have so far resisted making any changes to the program or how the drugs are dispensed. Eby has asserted that halting the program would cause great harm to people and Saks characterized criticisms of the program as rooted in fear and stigma.

And while B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry acknowledged patients commonly divert their prescribed pharmaceuticals, and that little data is known about how many pills are being diverted and to whom, in February she recommended expanding the types of drugs, potencies and formulations of the drugs to include a wider range of fentanyl and heroin products in more locations. 

What is RCMP definition of ‘widespread?’ asks MP

Back at the parliamentary committee, Doherty raised the RCMP “E” Division’s statement – when Asst. Commissioner Brewer said there was no evidence of widespread diversion in B.C. and Canada.

“The definition of widespread is ‘distributed over wide region or occurring in many places or among many persons or individuals,’” the MP said. He then pointed to testimony, investigations, arrests and other reports of safer supply drugs being diverted in Prince George, Campbell River, Victoria, Nanaimo, Kamloops, Kelowna, and First Nations in B.C and Alberta.

“Would that not just by the very nature of all those communities … common sense would say that that is a widespread problem.”

McDonald said Brewer’s statement required context, because it was issued amid allegations that safer supply had been diverted to most communities in B.C. and outside the province.

“At present, we do not have evidence to suggest that safer supply has been diverted outside of British Columbia,” McDonald said.

“We do see, and I agree with you, that we’ve seen it in some of the communities that you’ve listed. Those are also the same communities that have a predominant criminal, illicit drug market and organized crime groups in them.

“And as we identify them, we’re addressing them, but we have not seen it everywhere.”

However, McDonald added, “it is an emerging concern” and “something we’re following very closely.”

To which, Doherty returned: “Would your frontline officers … agree with that statement that there is no evidence to support widespread diversion [when] they’re seeing it every day on the ground?” 

“I would say it depends on the community in which they serve, because we’re not seeing it in every community,” McDonald responded. 

“Have organized crimes incorporated safe supply pharmaceuticals into their trafficking operations, yes or no?” asked Doherty.

“Yes,” said McDonald.

Note: This story was updated on Apr. 18 with a link to the Mar. 7 Prince George RCMP press release, which had been accidentally removed, and is now returned to the RCMP website.