Pubdate: Thu, 19 Oct 2017
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2017 The Globe and Mail Company
Author: Andrea Woo
Page: S1


Health and legal experts are urging caution about the idea of charging
fentanyl dealers with manslaughter, saying such a move would do little
to deter sellers and could instead punish those who are already
struggling with substance-use disorders.

B.C. Solicitor-General Mike Farnworth mentioned the idea to reporters
at an unrelated event last week, saying it was raised at a recent
meeting of federal and provincial public safety ministers.

"We strongly believe that if you're dealing fentanyl, you're dealing
death, and you should be facing much more severe penalties such as
manslaughter charges," Mr. Farnworth said.

On Wednesday, he clarified that the province would want to target
high-level players rather than streetlevel drug dealers. Illegal
importers bring bootleg fentanyl into Canada to cut into street drugs
such as heroin, leading to an epidemic of overdoses that has hit
British Columbia particularly hard.

"People who are importing substances, fentanyl, from China - they know
what they're doing. They know where it is going. They are dealing
death," Mr. Farnworth said. "Those are the big-time individuals. We're
not talking about someone who is using on the street. We are talking
about those who are importing. Those are the people we want to get."

But Adrienne Smith, a drug-policy lawyer in Vancouver, noted there are
logistical problems with such an idea in B.C., where police only
recommend charges for Crown approval.

"Prosecution of drug cases is conducted by the federal Crown based on
federal guidelines and sentencing is the purview of judges, guided by
applicable federal legislation and the common law," Ms. Smith said.
"Neither of these are answerable to the provincial government. The
government can of course propose solutions but, strictly, these things
are beyond provincial jurisdiction."

She also noted a possible issue in distinguishing between low- and
mid-level dealers who sell to support their own habit and the
"big-time individuals."

"This proposal might be well intentioned - to target so-called
kingpins - but I would have Charter concerns about the effect it could
have on people who would actually be subject to it," she said.

Provincial Health Officer Perry Kendall said that while he understands
the intention - deterrence and a strong message of social
disapprobation and punishment - empirical data suggest stricter
sentences are unlikely to be a deterrent or affect the drug supply.

He cited the drastically different penalties related to crack and
powdered cocaine in the United States. Under a law enacted in 1986,
the sale of five grams of crack cocaine was punishable by a five-year
prison sentence, while the quantity of cocaine required for the same
sentence was 500 grams.

Opponents argued there was no scientific or medical reason for the
1:100 ratio, which disproportionately affected African-Americans. The
U.S. Sentencing Commission found that while two-thirds of crack users
were white or Hispanic, more than 80 per cent of people sentenced for
crack offences were black. (The law was revised in 2010.)

"It had no effect on supply, but did fill the jails with lower-level
dealers, who also happened to be minorities of colour," Dr. Kendall
said. "Similarly, the mandatory minimums imposed by the Conservatives
and [similar] laws in the U.S. have been evaluated by criminologists
and found to have little or no real deterrence."

Dr. Kendall noted there is a risk that "the policy implementation will
not be able to distinguish between importers or non-user, large-scale
dealers and the easier-to-apprehend street-level user/dealer."

"Our attempts to destigmatize, through decriminalizing the user and
treating him or her as a person with an illness rather than a
criminal, could be jeopardized," he said.

In Alberta, where police lay charges, four people have been charged
with manslaughter for dealing fentanyl and carfentanil. The
manslaughter charge against one was stayed after he pleaded guilty to
the lesser offence of trafficking; the three other cases remain before
the courts.

B.C. courts have made some moves to address opioids through punitive
measures. In March, the B.C. Court of Appeal ruled that drug dealers
selling fentanyl should receive sentences in the range of 19 to
possibly more than 36 months - three times the range for selling drugs
such as heroin and cocaine.

"Recognizing a different and markedly higher sentencing range for
street-level dealing in fentanyl turns on the enhanced risks
associated with that activity and the individual responsibility of
dealers given those risks and public knowledge of them," Justice David
Harris wrote.

That ruling is binding only in B.C., but other jurisdictions can
follow it.

Mr. Farnworth, who is also B.C.'s Public Safety Minister, said the
province is working on a package of initiatives on fentanyl for the
weeks and months ahead.

B.C. had more than 1,000 illicit drug overdose deaths in the first
eight months of this year. Fentanyl was detected in 81 per cent of
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MAP posted-by: Matt