On January 30, Peterborough’s new Chief of Police Stuart Betts stood next to more than $1 million worth of drugs for a photo opportunity.
Five days earlier, police had seized the drugs at locations in Peterborough and Durham after executing a search warrant, detective staff sergeant Michael Jackson announced at the press conference. The investigation also led to the arrests of a Peterborough man and woman — they face six drug trafficking charges each.
Cocaine, fentanyl, crystal meth, and other substances were displayed in clear plastic bags at the media event. “This seizure of illicit drugs is one of the largest in Peterborough Police Service history,” Betts said. “This is what Peterborough Police Service is dedicated to keeping off our streets.”
The press conference had a celebratory air. “The seizure is a high point for city police and they deserve congratulations,” the Peterborough Examiner declared in an editorial.
But local harm reduction advocates say the seizure could actually put drug users at greater risk.
“Police tend to be very proud” of drug busts, said Carolyn King, who manages the safe supply program at the 360 Nurse Practitioner-Led Clinic. “But drug seizures disrupt the local drug market in really destabilizing and potentially harmful ways.”
When a source of drugs suddenly goes dry, users feel the impact, according to King. “The result of having a lack of supply is increased desperation [and] increased violence,” she said. And as with any market, low supply means higher prices, and that can lead to “desperation crimes,” she said.
Even more worrying to King, a sudden lack of drugs in town can encourage suppliers to stretch what they do have a little further. That means adding adulterants like benzodiazepines or other “mystery substances,” she said, “and those adulterants are causing untold harms.”
New supply will quickly fill the vacuum
Chief Betts acknowledged at the press conference that illegal drugs will still be available in Peterborough despite the temporary dent in supply achieved by the seizure, according to the Peterborough Examiner.
That’s one thing King agrees with him on. “Altering supply does nothing to reduce demand,” she said. “New suppliers will move in and fill the gap.”
But when the next supply does arrive, it could be from new, unknown sources, and that could make it more dangerous. “A sudden disruption to the supply chain can mean that new and untested or untrusted sources come in,” King said. “Any kind of stability that might have existed between consumers and dealers is shot.”
According to Peterborough Public Health, there was a spike in opioid poisonings in Peterborough in the five days following the January 25 drug bust. Over those five days, products with “an increased level of toxicity” were circulating in the community, the health unit stated.
It’s hard to know if the spike in poisonings is connected with the drug bust, King said. “It’s impossible to pinpoint exactly what’s going on, because the result of criminalization is that all of these things happen in secret,” she said. “But patterns in history would suggest that yes, it’s related.”
“The new supplier that is sweeping the streets right now could have an entirely different brand of dope going on, and people are not accustomed to it,” she said. The “ability to regulate one’s own dosing is incredibly affected anytime there’s a significant or sudden change in the drug supply.”
The potential toxicity of the seized drugs is not yet known, but will be determined by testing conducted by Health Canada, Betts said in a statement to Currents. “These drugs, irrespective of any additional toxicity, are dangerous and would have been sold in our community had we not removed them from the street,” he said.
But Alana Parisien said removing these drugs from the community could have unintended consequences. “When we remove a large quantity of substances from the community like that, we don’t know if we’re removing the poisoned drugs, or the more pure drugs,” they said.
Larger supplies such as the one recently seized are typically safer than smaller ones because they haven’t had adulterants added yet, according to Parisien. “So we’re actually removing what could be the safer of the substances.”
Parisien is the manager of housing programs at the Elizabeth Fry Society of Peterborough. They are also the founder of Peterborough’s Anti-Stigma Day and a member of the Tweak Easy, a volunteer-run overdose prevention tent. [Disclosure: Author Will Pearson occasionally volunteers at the Tweak Easy.]
Drug users learn over time which dealers have safer supplies and which ones don’t, Parisien said, and removing a supplier from the community limits users’ ability to choose who they get their drugs from.
Focus on root causes of substance use, advocates say
King and Parisien want to see a shift away from treating substance use as a criminal issue and toward treating it as a health and social issue.
“Seizing drugs … does nothing to address the root causes of substance use, like trauma, poverty, social alienation, and exclusion,” King said. In fact, criminalization “compounds all of the issues that lead to substance use,” she said.
In his statement to Currents, Betts pointed out that the size of the bust indicated that it was “irrefutably connected to organized crime.”
“It goes without saying that organized crime also brings violence, and violent behaviour with tentacles extending beyond City borders,” Betts said. “The Peterborough Police Service will continue to do what it can to disrupt that type of criminal enterprise and remain cognizant of assisting at a local level where users are the ultimate victims of those who are choosing profit over lives.”
But King argues that gang-related drug trafficking has the same social causes as substance use, and that incarcerating traffickers won’t help. “The results are in: jail does not help,” she said. “Nobody comes out of jail feeling better about themselves.”
“The war on drugs has cost billions of dollars at this point,” King said. “If it was actually an effective strategy, we wouldn’t continue to see increasing drug poisoning, year after year after year.”
In 2010, a systematic review of existing research on the impacts of law enforcement interventions into the drug market concluded that these interventions were “unlikely to reduce drug gang violence.” To the contrary, “gun violence and high homicide rates are likely a natural consequence of drug prohibition,” wrote the study authors, most of whom were based at the University of British Columbia.
More recently, a 2020 review of research by the Australian Institute of Criminology focused on the impacts of drug seizures and dealer arrests on drug-related harms and found that there was insufficient evidence to support the practices. “The existing evidence does not allow us to definitively conclude that arresting suppliers and seizing from suppliers will lead to desired outcomes such as reducing drug crime, drug use and other drug harms,” the authors of the study wrote.
Town Ward councillor Alex Bierk said he doesn’t believe the recent seizure will help drug users or make them safer. He suggested the bust might be more about optics. “It’s probably mostly for the public [who] think this way is the way out of the drug crisis,” he wrote to Currents.
In British Columbia, a decriminalization pilot project is currently underway. For the duration of the three-year pilot, the simple possession of less than 2.5 grams of certain drugs will not be a criminal offense.
Many drug users in British Columbia have said the 2.5-gram threshold is too low to make a difference. And Garth Mullins, a drug user activist and podcast host, worries that decriminalizing small amounts of drugs will lead to tougher police action against dealers who have large amounts. “If they actually step up their war on the dealers, the drug supply will get even worse, and people will die,” he said on the latest episode of his podcast, Crackdown.
Parisien agrees that the solution to the drug crisis lies far upstream of the drug market. “Until we start to address the very root [causes of substance use], we’re going to need the drugs in our community. And so removing the drugs is not solving the problem. It’s just masking it.”