Drug addiction experts slam undercover police operation near Calgary drug use site
CALGARY – Steps from Calgary’s only supervised consumption site, a man unknowingly sold an undercover police officer a small amount of methamphetamine – one-fifth of a gram in a clear plastic bag for $ 10.
Court documents show Michael Hassard was unsure of the man in civilian clothes when he asked to buy drugs, but a woman Hassard knew vouched for the buyer and his friend.
Shortly after, Hassard was arrested by uniformed officers. He was charged with trafficking and possession of the proceeds of crime under $ 5,000.
His arrest was part of a Calgary Police Service effort in December 2018 called Operation Desist, which sought to choke off the supply of methamphetamine and target traffickers preying on vulnerable people.
Drug addicts and legal experts argue the sting failed on both fronts and further victimized an already-at-risk group.
Hassard’s experiment sheds light on covert efforts to criminalize the activity surrounding the supervised consumption site and its users, says Rebecca Haines-Saah, associate professor of community health sciences at the University of Calgary.
As the Alberta government plans to shut down the Safeworks site, Haines-Saah says it is essential for people to understand how the police departments there have influenced public perceptions and divided opinions on the service. downtown.
A 2018 police report showed a 29% increase in service calls around Safeworks and a 276% increase in drug-related calls from the three-year average.
The United Conservative government said in a report on drug use sites in Alberta that data from Calgary indicated “residents’ concerns are well founded.” In May, the province cited disturbances in the area for closing the site.
The government confirmed this week that Safeworks will remain open until two new locations for similar services are secured.
Safe consumption sites allow people to use substances under the supervision of trained staff who provide emergency care in the event of an overdose.
Hassard has not yet been convicted, but has pleaded guilty to both counts. In January, a judge dismissed the man’s request to stay the proceedings on the basis of an allegation of entrapment.
Hassard’s attorney, Robin McIntyre, said those arrested for similar offenses had been put behind bars for months, if not years.
“By the time you have sold drugs, even in small amounts, we are realistically talking about a prison sentence,” says McIntyre.
Operations like Desist can turn people who use substances into sellers due to the circumstances, she adds.
“(The police) offer marginalized and vulnerable people the opportunity to commit an offense,” McIntyre said. “We see people who are hungry… so they can sell their leftover medicine so they can have change for a sandwich.”
One of the undercover officers said during the stay hearing that “it is possible that drug addicts may be enticed to sell their drugs on demand”, but added that the operation was based on call statistics. drug-related in the region.
During cross-examination, police admitted that the data was limited. Requests for service were not collected in a way that differentiated between drug trafficking, drug use or overdose. It is also not known whether a person, for example, made several calls to the police.
In a statement, Calgary police rejected suggestions that Safeworks customers were being targeted.
Court documents show that undercover operatives carried out the operation in six different areas, including the city block that is home to Safeworks and a nearby park.
Haines-Saah says targeting the dealers won’t stop the flow of drugs.
“Targeting people at street level – they are just replaced by other people and this sometimes leads to turf wars and exacerbates violence.”
Once charged, they are part of a “revolving door” in and out of the justice system, creating barriers to employment, housing and addiction supports.
Edmonton lawyer Avnish Nanda says continued undercover operations near drug consumption sites goes against the spirit of Health Canada’s drug law exemptions for approved operators . Nanda suggests that a strong police presence can deter drug addicts from the service, increasing the risk of overdoses and dangerous supplies such as used needles.
Health Canada declined to comment on the appropriate policing around the sites.
Calgary faces a record number of drug poisoning deaths this year. Government statistics show that in the first five months, 205 people in the city died from unintentional drug poisoning, a 40.4% increase from the same period in 2020.
Alberta Health Services says there have been no deaths among the 185,000 visitors to Safeworks since January 2018.
Alberta withdrew funding for the Lethbridge safe consumption site last July after allegations of financial misconduct surfaced. They later turned out to be unfounded.
Since the site closed, the overdose death rate in the southern Alberta city has skyrocketed. The figure was 2.5 times higher than the provincial average in May at 83.9 per 100,000 population.
Those who advocate and work with drug addicts suggest policymakers and law enforcement should determine meaningful steps to ensure the success of Calgary’s two new sites when they open.
Haines-Saah says one solution is to decriminalize illegal substances.
“We’ve tried everything and we know it doesn’t work,” she says. “The stigma of being criminalized, of interacting with law enforcement, is much more costly for our systems and for individuals.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on August 22, 2021.
Alanna Smith, The Canadian Press