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Relapse: Facing Canada's Opioid Crisis

Why an Accused Drug Dealer’s Manslaughter Charge Sets a Bad Precedent

As more fentanyl dealers get arrested, experts warn against jailing addicts.

Fentanyl pills. Photo via Canadian Press

Jordan Yarmey celebrated nine months of sobriety from a fentanyl addiction last week in an Edmonton jail where illicit drugs flow freely and dozens of inmates have overdosed on fentanyl and other opioids.

Yarmey, 25, was arrested and charged with drug trafficking in January after Edmonton police were called to his residence and found the body of Szymon Kalich, who consumed a fatal dose of fentanyl. Ordered to seek treatment for his opioid addiction as part of his bail conditions, Yarmey's family pooled $15,000 to put him in private rehab. His mom said he kicked his habit, and was getting his life together. But last week, Yarmey was arrested again and slapped with a rare manslaughter charge in Kalich's death, nine months after it happened. As Yarmey sits in the Edmonton remand centre awaiting the outcome of his bail hearing on Tuesday, drug policy and medical experts are pointing to his case as an example of why the criminalization of addiction does more harm than good. Staff Sgt. Dave Monson of the Edmonton police drug squad told a news conference last week the manslaughter charge—which is rarely applied in Canadian drug overdose cases—should send a strong message to drug dealers. Police across Alberta, which has seen hundreds of opioid overdoses this year, have been calling on prosecutors to impose harsher penalties for convicted fentanyl dealers, than for those who deal less potent drugs. "By giving someone one of these pills, it's like putting a bullet in a gun or two bullets in a gun and spinning the chamber," Larry Mullins, a retired police officer in Edmonton who lost his 21-year-old son to a fentanyl overdose, told CBC last week. "If they realize that, they're going to say 'Gee, is it worth going to jail for 25 years?" But Helen Yarmey says that like Kalich, her son is a victim of the opioid crisis. She says Jordan Yarmey thought he was using Oxycontin when he became addicted to fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times stronger than heroin. He started selling the substance to pay for his own supply, which can cost as much as $20 per pill. Sometimes, he would do so much that he would fall asleep for two or three days at a time. She says her son had never met Kalich before he came to his house that night in January. They played video games and took fentanyl together. They both went to sleep in the apartment and a day later, Yarmey couldn't get Kalich to wake up, according to his mother. Now with her son back in jail, Helen is worried he could relapse. "Addiction is a disease that needs help. So arresting people, addicts, is not going to solve the problem," said Helen. "I understand that crimes have to be punished, but I think there needs to be more focus on getting help, early intervention." According to Statistics Canada, there's been an increase in the rate of possession and trafficking charges related to drugs such as crystal meth, heroin, and fentanyl over the last year, while drug offences related to cocaine and cannabis have declined. For Dr. Hakique Virani, an addictions specialist in Edmonton, there is ample evidence that criminalizing addiction as part of the so-called War on Drugs has been "an abject failure." "It marginalizes people who need help, it increases social disorder and violence, it costs more than we can imagine, and most importantly, it achieves none of its intents except treating some humans less humanely," Virani wrote in an email. Virani added that countries such as Portugal, where drug possession for personal use is decriminalized, have seen a drop in the number of drug addicts and overdose deaths. "And when people caught with illegal drugs appear to be struggling with an addiction disorder, they find their way to treatment, not jail," he explained. Criminalizing addicts may also distract from others who could be held responsible for the opioid crisis in the first place. "What fate should befall physicians whose prescribing of opioids contributes to death?" he said, pointing to a recent landmark case in California where a doctor was convicted of murder in the deaths of her patients who overdosed on medications she prescribed. "I think bereaved families can blame us all for the crisis that has claimed the lives of their loved ones—not just drug dealers," he said. Donna May, a mother from the Toronto area whose daughter Jac died of a prescription opioid overdose at age 35 in 2012, has been following Yarmey's case and says it's why she would prefer to see addiction treated as a public health emergency. "He is the fall guy and he is being criminalized to make people feel like they've done something about it when they have done nothing about it," May said in an interview. "The popular opinion of prohibition has never worked, but we keep driving our car into the same brick wall. We need to try a different approach. But our powers that be decide we will keep trying and hope that one day it works." Follow Rachel on Twitter