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Who's to blame after an overdose?

Police are looking to treat fatal overdoses as homicides, arguing that holding drug dealers responsible for deaths could act as a deterrent, reports Carrie Tait

Constable Rayan Najjar with the Blood Tribe Service in Stand Off, Alta.

Constable Rayan Najjar with the Blood Tribe Service in Stand Off, Alta.

Chris Bolin/For The Globe and Mail

Sergeant Rayan Najjar remembers the day the Blood Tribe Police treated two fentanyl overdoses as homicide cases, a rare and controversial approach to combatting Canada's drug trade.

"We had three overdose [calls] that day, within 45 minutes of each other," he said. "Just bam, bam."

Someone dropped off a man at the reserve's emergency medical services building around 9 a.m. Another individual was brought to the police station 40 minutes later. Both survived. Then police were called to a birthday celebration at a house where two people were dead. Police allege fentanyl, a deadly drug that had been sweeping the southern Alberta reserve, killed them. By then it was noon on March 20, 2015.

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The Blood Tribe Police force's next move remains extremely unusual: investigators allege three people who are accused of selling the illicit opioids at the party are responsible for the two deaths.

One person faces two charges of manslaughter, and two more face two counts each of causing death by criminal negligence. Their trials are scheduled for 2017.

Manslaughter charges for dealers alleged to have sold drugs that led to overdoses are infrequent, but they may be catching on: The Edmonton Police Service at the end of last month charged an accused dealer with manslaughter in the January death of a man from a fentanyl overdose. It was the first time the EPS laid manslaughter charges related to a fentanyl overdose.

Western Canada's fentanyl crisis escalated quickly. In Alberta, for example, deaths involving the powerful opioid climbed to 257 in 2015 from six in 2011. Ottawa and provincial governments have recognized that Canada is in a crisis.

This weekend, Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott is holding a national summit to strategize on how to address the country's opioid struggle, in which fentanyl has become the most prominent drug. Last month, an infant in Winnipeg was hospitalized after ingesting a substance police believe to be fentanyl.

In Alberta, some police hope charging alleged dealers with manslaughter as well as trafficking will help stem the epidemic.

These steps come as politicians race to pour money into treatment programs and provide health-care providers, first responders and users with easier access to the antidote naloxone.

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"Once you realized you can be held accountable if somebody overdoses, then maybe you're just a little hesitant" to sell drugs, Sgt. Najjar said. He believes the charges, combined with education and increased access to a fentanyl antidote on the reserve, have helped reduce the death toll in his community.

But the efficacy of the approach has been questioned.

Isabel Grant, who teaches a course on homicide at the University of British Columbia's Peter A. Allard School of Law, said manslaughter convictions can result in anything from no jail time to life in prison. Given that the "very serious penalties" that can accompany trafficking convictions have not stemmed the drug trade, it is unclear whether manslaughter charges will be a greater deterrent, the professor said.

"These are not solutions that are really going to help the terrible problems that are going on with fentanyl," she said. "I would be surprised if we saw a lot of resources invested in this direction."

Manslaughter charges, she said, do not address how fentanyl or other drugs reach the streets, are manufactured in the country, or slip across the borders. Further, the approach ignores social factors that lead people to abuse drugs, Prof. Grant added.

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Neither RCMP in Alberta nor the Calgary Police Service have used manslaughter charges related to fentanyl deaths, their spokeswomen said this week. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and prosecutors are increasingly turning to manslaughter-type charges in drug cases, but even in a country known for more aggressively punishing people in the drug trade, this approach is rare.

"It started a couple years ago and it is slowly becoming more common," DEA special agent Erin Mulvey said. "It is [in part] a deterrent to other dealers."

In New York, for example, officials have pressed charges in drug-overdose deaths about seven times in three years, she said. (This includes fentanyl and other drugs.)

In Alberta, 193 people died after taking fentanyl between January and September this year, according to the provincial statistics. The same stretch last year had 205 fatalities. Deaths related to fentanyl exceed those from other opioids. The province believes 145 people died in Alberta during the first nine months of the year after taking opioids other than fentanyl. Calgary and Edmonton have been hit the hardest, and First Nations individuals are most at risk, according to a report Alberta published last month.

The Blood Tribe declared a state of emergency in 2015 after fentanyl swept the reserve. Sgt. Najjar said deaths from the deadly drug have fallen. The manslaughter charges may have spooked some dealers, he said, but access to naloxone has been key, as has drug safety education for users.

"They are taking the drug in a group opposed to individuals, so if they do OD, there's somebody there that can watch over them," Sgt. Najjar said. "They are taking turns watching each other when they are administering."


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