Enforcement must be part of the fight against the overdose epidemic, British Columbia Premier John Horgan said on Friday as he announced funding for dedicated drug trafficking teams and other policing measures.
"It's not just about treatment, it's about law enforcement," Mr. Horgan told delegates at the annual general meeting of the Union of B.C. Municipalities (UBCM).
While the government is expanding treatment options, Mr. Horgan said it is important to ensure police have the tools to fight fentanyl importation and ensure neighbourhoods and cities are safe.
"That means more officers and a dedicated anti-trafficking team. We're going to be working on that," Mr. Horgan said.
A wave of fatal overdoses has prompted the new NDP government to set up a Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions to deal with the situation. As of Friday, the BC Coroners Service reported 876 illegal drug overdose deaths in the province, with fentanyl a factor in 81 per cent of those deaths.
Mr. Horgan told the UBCM the overdose crisis would claim four more British Columbians on Friday if it were an average day. "That's just not acceptable to me, and I know it's not acceptable to you."
Friday's announcement from the Premier's office provided details on how $31.3-million over three years that was allocated in the recent fiscal update would be spent. The initiatives will include new dedicated anti-trafficking teams within the RCMP in B.C. and the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit (CFSEU), with additional officers and support staff.
This will include resources to allow police to target traffickers to stem the flow of fentanyl into B.C.
There will also be increased support to bring together mental health, social service and police agencies to reach people who are at what a statement described as "elevated risk" from illegal fentanyl.
The CFSEU said it is already targeting people associated with gangs and organized crime who pose a risk to public safety. "This includes those who traffic in opioids," Sergeant Brenda Winpenny said in a statement issued on Friday in response to the Premier's remarks.
"While it will take some time for us to work with government around the specific funding and then to staff any new positions, we will work as quickly as we can to increase our capacity. Any new capacity that we are able to add will build on our abilities that we currently have to educate, prevent, suppress, disrupt and conduct enforcement."
The RCMP declined to comment in detail.
"All I can say at this point is that we welcome today's announcement and look forward to any additional resources to help protect British Columbians," Staff Sergeant Annie Linteau of the BC division of the RCMP said in a statement. "We continue to work with the Government of British Columbia to determine how and when these resources will be deployed."
BC Liberal MLA Todd Stone told a news conference after Mr. Horgan's speech that all funds devoted to the opioid situation are welcome.
"We all know how serious the opioid crisis is across British Columbia in communities from here in the Lower Mainland right through the Interior and up into the north. Any additional assistance that can be brought to bear to provide the supports and the services that people need to deal with this crisis is welcome."
However, criminologist Rob Gordon of Simon Fraser University said he is skeptical about the power of law enforcement to deal with an issue best addressed by treating those addicted to illegal fentanyl.
"I'm not saying, 'Shut down law enforcement,' but the place to place scarce resources is at the consumption end to try to address the consequences of consumption," he said in an interview.