Fentanyl: ‘The Police Can’t Arrest Their Way Out of This’

Where it's coming from, why it's so deadly, and what it will take to end the overdose crisis, according to a top Vancouver cop.

July 28, 2017

By Megan Stewart

No one saw the fentanyl crisis coming—not even Bill Spearn. The staff sergeant with the Vancouver Police Department’s (VPD) organized crime section—one of the city’s highest-ranking drug enforcement officers with 21 years’ experience—started on the beat in the Downtown Eastside in 1996, but it wasn’t until 2001 that he first heard of the potent synthetic opioid. Another decade passed before the drug hit our city’s streets, and even then, he couldn’t have predicted that just a few years later fentanyl would become ubiquitous, the epicentre of an overdose epidemic that has killed more than 700 people in B.C. so far this year. And Spearn says it could get much worse before it begins to get better: “By the end of this year, it’s going to be the equivalent of a jumbo jet crashing into Vancouver,” he says. “That’s how many people are going to die.”

In an effort to learn more about the crisis in Vancouver, VanMag sat down with Spearn to find out how the VPD is tackling the organized crime behind fentanyl’s pervasive presence in the city, and the major challenges the force faces in cutting off the supply.

Cautionary posters hit city streets last year, when rampant fentanyl overdoses gave rise to a public health emergency.

On his first encounters with fentanyl…

“Back in 2001 when I was with the drug squad, I remember guys from the United States telling us the worst thing you can run across was a fentanyl lab. I’d never heard of fentanyl before, and it just kind of stuck in my head that this is something I have to remember. Then, around 2010, people started telling me they were using fake Oxys with fentanyl, which I thought was ludicrous.

Organized crime is very good at developing a method of delivery for drugs that maximizes their profits, so they saw an opportunity. They started producing counterfeit OxyContin, and the active ingredient was fentanyl because they could get it for cheap.

Things really got out of control here on Thanksgiving Day of 2014. That day, I started getting phone calls from some very experienced [community members] that worked in the Downtown Eastside, telling me there was something going on. People were overdosing everywhere, specifically inside of Insite and just outside the front doors. They had 30 in a couple of hours.”

Another date that mars his calendar…

“You always talk about what’s a good day and what’s a bad day. Well, a bad day for me was December 15, 2016 when we had nine fatalities in one day. When have nine people in Vancouver ever died from anything? It’s a problem for the whole province. We are going to have 1,500 people die in B.C. this year from [fentanyl] and it’s preventable.”

Fentanyl is so deadly, police officers must now wear protective suits, similar to this one, on the most mundane drug seizures.

On the police work that began three years ago…

“We immediately started working with Insite. We asked them for a sample of what people were using, and one of their clients surrendered a couple of origami paper flaps containing a powder. It analyzed as fentanyl and caffeine. That is the first time in my career I ever saw fentanyl.

At that point in time, we had to start targeting people who were distributing it. It was localized, we hadn’t seen that much of it. Right away, we started a couple of fentanyl projects, Project Trooper and Project Tainted. We ran two big projects out of the organized crime section, which is something we hadn’t done because they are very resource intensive. It’s hard to run two projects, big ones, at the same time but we did it. They were both very successful.”

VanMag: Project Tainted ended with 10 suspects charged (most pled guilty) and police seizing 25,000 fentanyl pills, 9.5 kilograms of crack cocaine, five kilograms of powdered cocaine, and 19.5 kilograms of marijuana and other drugs. Police also seized a pill press, four guns, seven vehicles and more than $260,000 in cash along with $1.2 million in other property. Project Trooper netted six suspects who were charged and forfeited $3 million in property, 12 guns, eight vehicles and a single room occupancy hotel, plus 25,000 fentanyl pills and 1.6 kilograms of heroin.

 In January of this year, James Walter McCormick was found guilty of fentanyl trafficking after he was accused of bearing “personal significant responsibility for hundreds of fentanyl-detected deaths.” He was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

Drugs, money, vehicles, guns and ammunition are just some of items seized by Project Trooper

On the ongoing challenges of policing fentanyl…

“We’ve done nothing but fentanyl enforcement since 2014. Two years ago, we hoped that when we did a search, we would find fentanyl because we targeted it. Now, we expect to find it when we go through every door with a search warrant. It’s everywhere. Jump ahead to 2017, just about every drug seizure in Vancouver involves fentanyl.”

On why fentanyl has such a tight grip here…

“Obviously, our proximity to China—and there is a lot of organized crime in Canada, especially in British Columbia. Organized crime is very business savvy. Fentanyl is very cheap. It’s much cheaper than heroin, so they make more money importing it and selling it as heroin. The profit margins are incredibly high.

A kilo of fentanyl on the internet being sold for $12,000 or $12,500 is enough to make a million pills that you can sell for $20 to $80 each.”

VanMag: This is a potential profit of anywhere from $20 million  to $80 million.

How Insite is Reacting to the Increase in Fentanyl Overdoses

On fentanyl production versus importation…

“There have been very few fentanyl labs located in B.C. We have found them, but not very many, maybe four. We seize the precursors for it, but we just don’t see the labs. We see chemicals used in the production of fentanyl. We see tableting operations. We see mixing operations where people are mixing fentanyl in a powder form to sell, usually as heroin. But we haven’t seen a lot of clandestine labs that produce fentanyl. That may change if we cut off the supply from China.

It’s so easy to buy fentanyl over the internet from China, through the mail. I don’t really want to get into how they’re doing it, but I’ve seen some pretty creative things. Smugglers will always have new tricks up their sleeves. [Canada Border Services Agency] is very good at detecting this stuff. They can’t detect it all.

I’ll tell you, the problem is we, the police, have been looking for big items—kilos of cocaine or kilos of heroin—and now something as small as a gram in a package is enough to kill a lot of people.”

Some of the items seized as a result of Project Tainted.

On the logistics of seizing fentanyl…

“We have had to change the way we do business. We walk into every situation now like we’re dealing with opioids. We have to wear personal protective equipment. We have to slow down, not rush things and make sure we handle things properly so we don’t get exposed. We have to use different equipment to detect this. We have to use different equipment to sample things. It’s really slowed us down.

When we seize a kilo of drugs, we don’t send that whole kilo off, we send off a very small sample, less than a gram. So, we actually have to cut this thing open, sample it. We have to do this masked up, gloved up, wearing long sleeves underneath a fume hood that draws the air up so you don’t open a package and have it “puff” in front of your face. That sort of thing happens.

We had one of our officers exposed a couple weeks ago seizing some drugs. He had to get Narcan administered to him. He did it himself. He felt that he was overdosing, he had it on him. That’s the first time I’ve ever heard of that.”

On the unpredictable aim of fentanyl…

“The problem with the pills is you get this effect, which I call the chocolate chip cookie effect. If you have a fentanyl pill, your cookie may have what I call a hot spot, a concentration of chocolate chips. A couple of people will buy a fentanyl pill and split it in half. And guess what—this person lives, that person dies. The quality control is not substantial. That’s the sort of thing we run into just about every day now.”

Piles of cash and drugs seized as a result of Project Trooper.

On police strategies to nab drug traffickers, not users…

“We trust our officers. They have a lot of discretion and, for the most part, we don’t target drug users. There are some exceptions—we weigh our enforcement against public safety, of course if we have drug users using near parks or schools, community centres, we will take action. But, for the most part, we target drug traffickers. Vancouver has had a progressive overdose response policy since 2006. The VPD’s number one priority when we attend overdoses is public safety. We are not there to arrest people. We want to make sure that people don’t fear calling 911 when they experience an overdose or somebody they are with is experiencing an overdose.”

On embracing harm reduction…

“I can tell you that Bill Spearn, as a beat policeman from 1996 to 2001, was 100 percent against harm reduction. I didn’t want to see needle exchanges, I didn’t want to see a safe consumption site because I thought that it was going to encourage drug use, it was going to act like a big magnet drawing people into Vancouver.

But when I walked the beat from ’96 to 2001, I was going from overdose to overdose to overdose. The ambulance crews used to drive the lanes, looking for people overdosing. I will never forget that. I started seeing the first needle exchanges around 2000.

When I came back [to work in the Downtown Eastside] in 2011, in the year and half that I was there, I probably attended maybe five or six overdoses. I attribute that [improvement] to the harm-reduction initiatives that were brought in. They work. I’ve done a 180.”

Along side his notes on how to solve the opioid epidemic, Staff Sgt. Spearn draws a “cookie” to represent fentanyl’s unpredictable distribution in the street drug supply.

On why we should provide users with free and clean drugs…

“We find fentanyl in all sorts of street drugs with the exception of marijuana. The harm-reduction or the safe-consumption models that we have—allowing people to bring in street drugs into a facility to use them—doesn’t work anymore [because the drugs are contaminated]. We need more treatment for people who have drug dependency issues. We have to give them clean drugs to use.

When somebody is using their welfare cheque to buy contaminated drugs and they are overdosing, being Narcan’d back to life, and then they are out of money, they have no money for food. They have no money for drugs. They have to go commit crimes in order to get their drugs, like breaking into cars, assaulting people, selling their bodies. It’s just a revolving door. Really, it’s much more humane and much more cost-effective to provide services to people—give them clean drugs, counselling, health care, rather than running them through our court system and health care system like we do now.”

Drug Users are the First Line of Defense Against Fentanyl

On what we don’t understand about the opioid crisis…

“When everybody thinks of a drug overdose, they get this picture in their head of a drug-dependent person in the Downtown Eastside, and I can tell you, the opioid crisis touches all aspects of society. This is a problem that affects the entire province and it’s creeping east across the country.

It’s not just the drug-dependent person that is suffering here. It is occasional users, it is first-time users that we are seeing die. It touches professional people. Luckily, we haven’t had a lot of kids affected, but we have had them.

The last statistic I saw, we’ve had 204 fatal overdoses in Vancouver so far this year. That’s mind-boggling. I think last year we had 214 in the whole year. By the end of this year, it’s going to be the equivalent of a jumbo jet crashing into Vancouver. That’s how many people are going to die here.

We need public education. We need treatment. The police can’t arrest their way out of this.”

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