After two fatal overdoses in Saskatoon last weekend, police said they are considering manslaughter or murder charges for the alleged dealers they believe are responsible. The overdoses occurred as a result of suspected fentanyl-laced cocaine. But are murder charges against dealers whose clients die from overdoses realistic?
“You would need to show that not only the drug dealer knew there was fentanyl in the drugs, but knew that the fentanyl could cause bodily harm and that they intended it to cause harm,” Michael Spratt, an Ottawa-based criminal defence lawyer, told VICE. Charges for manslaughter or criminal negligence causing death are more realistic, Spratt said. Manslaughter charges for dealers in particular have been on the rise in Canada as the opioid crisis has taken hold of the country.
Jagmanjot Grewal, 21, and Azam Kabani, 19, of Calgary and Shervin Beeharry, 19, of Saskatoon were arrested are facing trafficking and weapons charges in relation to selling what police said was fentanyl-laced cocaine in Saskatoon last weekend.
Proving that a dealer intentionally cut a drug and intended it to cause harm to someone, though, would likely be difficult. Spratt said that proof would be needed, for example, “through a statement or text messages” that show the fentanyl was not in the drugs to increase potency or yield and that it was intended to cause bodily harm to the person or people who consumed it.
According to Nick Boyce, a harm reduction worker with the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society, it’s most likely that fentanyl getting into other drugs such as cocaine is happening accidentally. For example, a dealer might be selling multiple drugs and not cleaning surfaces properly while weighing and packaging substances. Fentanyl contamination of non-opioid drugs, like cocaine or crack, can be especially dangerous because the person consuming it is less likely to have a tolerance for opioids.
To help dealers protect their customers from potential fentanyl contamination, the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society released a list of tips. Some of these recommendations include wiping down scales and surfaces with alcohol wipes and using unique packaging for different drugs. (If you’re someone who uses drugs, you can read about how to use more safely here.)
“The idea of charging dealers with murder for the death of their clients I think is a waste of time and resources,” Boyce said. “We’ve had over a 100 years of drug prohibition and criminalization, and it’s achieved absolutely nothing.”
Drug prohibition and criminalization of drug use is considered to be directly related to the overdose crisis. In Canada last year, it’s estimated that at least 4,000 people died from opioid overdoses. Just last week, the City of Vancouver called for decriminalization of personal drug possession in Canada amidst rising overdose deaths.
Boyce said the dealers who would potentially be facing homicide-related charges are likely low-level and may even be using drugs themselves. However, he said the warning Saskatoon police issued about an alleged dealer (and his phone number, which has since been disconnected) after multiple ODs had occured in one day from suspected fentanyl-laced cocaine is a move that has the potential to prevent overdoses.
But, according to him, it’s unlikely that charging alleged dealers with murder would prevent overdose deaths.
“The time and effort should be focused on regulating the drugs, as we do with alcohol, cigarettes, and we soon will be doing with cannabis,” he said.
Though we may not have had the same trend yet in Canada, sentences for manslaughter and criminal negligence causing death can be just as lengthy as those for murder, Spratt said.
“It’s completely within the judge’s discretion,” Spratt said. “Certainly the presence of fentanyl and the opioid crisis would be viewed as aggravating factors… If you’re dealing cocaine and you know there’s a presence of fentanyl—and you know the dangers of fentanyl—it can be aggravating that you engaged in that conduct anyway.”