Police in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, have made some bold claims to the media about cocaine use on the island, including that people are buying cocaine with stolen meat and COVID relief funds.
None of the claims made in a CBC News story were supported with evidence, prompting criticism from drug policy experts that the article amounted to drug war propaganda.
VICE World News has reached out to Cape Breton police for comment but has not yet received a response.
The CBC story, titled “‘Shocking’ amounts of cocaine a bigger problem than opioids in Cape Breton, say police,” cites Const. John Campbell, a street crimes officer with Cape Breton police, who said cocaine has become one of the most popular drugs on the island. Campbell attributed the spike in coke consumption—which he did not back up with data—to the federal government’s Canada Emergency Response Benefit, a $2,000-a-month COVID relief fund that ended last year, though it’s been replaced with employment insurance and a different benefit for unemployed people.
Rebecca Haines-Saah, an associate professor at the University of Calgary who studies harm reduction, said the claim that people are spending government money on drugs is “dangerous” for suggesting people who are disenfranchised during a public health crisis don't deserve aid.
Haines-Saah said it’s a talking point that’s been used by conservative politicians, including Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, and one that’s been debunked. Overdose deaths have worsened during the pandemic, but that’s due to myriad factors, including an increasingly toxic drug supply, more people using drugs alone, and more people using drugs to cope with the stress of the pandemic.
“It’s a fantastic claim to say that a government assistance program is what fundamentally altered an illicit drug market,” Haines-Saah said.
Haines-Saah also said that while fentanyl has been found in cocaine and other powders and pills, she has not heard of a rise in cocaine-related overdose deaths.
Campbell also told CBC News that people are resorting to petty crime, including meat theft, to pay for their new coke habits.
“People go to No Frills [a supermarket chain] and they’ll steal hundreds of dollars in meat products and then take it to a drug dealer’s house in exchange for cocaine,” Campbell said, adding “it all starts at organized crime.”
While some people with problematic substance use do steal meat and other things to pay for drugs, Haines-Saah said she doesn’t think it’s a widespread trend.
“People are turning to robbery and other forms of crime to survive. And I’m not saying that we permit that and just overlook it. But it’s almost like we’re ignoring the bigger picture of what’s happening in the community and what inequities are going on,” she said.
A drug dealer source told VICE World News that people steal meat as a result of poverty. But he said while that type of trade may happen among low-level dealers and drug users, “Hells Angels doesn’t want ribs.” He said he was once offered a freezer full of meat in exchange for cannabis, which he declined.
The CBC story also said organized crime is infiltrating schools and enlisting teens to “sell drugs to their peers or groom other youth.” The story described cannabis, which is legal for adults in Canada, and pills as a “hot item” for young people.
But Haines-Saah said the story ignores the context in which youth become involved in gangs, including poverty and a lack of resources.
“To use the term ‘hot item,’ that's just stupid,” she said. “It's not a pair of Timberlands.”
Campbell also claimed cocaine has become the weekend party drug of choice for many Cape Bretoners.
“They do a bump of cocaine like it’s nothing, like they’re having a coffee,” he told CBC News.
Only around 10 percent of drug consumers become addicted.
Haines-Saah said Campbell’s comments show the arbitrary nature in which people judge the use of different drugs.
“Just like many people who use alcohol are not addicted to it and don’t die from it and don’t require treatment from it, it’s the same with cocaine,” she said. “When a substance is illegal, that’s what makes it unsafe, not the nature of the substance.”
Haines-Saah said journalists should be careful when quoting police as their main source on drug stories, because they can advocate for the role of policing in the continuation of the war on drugs.
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