Last August, Beverley Packham found her 26-year-old son, Ryan, dead in his Sudbury home, the victim of an accidental fentanyl overdose. Now, she wants justice. There’s a key person escaping blame, she thinks: the dealer who sold her son the drugs.
“I know that person knew my son, so he has to live with that for the rest of his life, and maybe that, in itself, will be enough for him to make a decision for him to make a change,” she says.
“We need change immediately.”
Change seems to be coming. In May, the Greater Sudbury Police Service laid its first-ever manslaughter charge in connection with a deadly opioid overdose. Packham and a group of like-minded activists were standing outside the courthouse on June 6 when the accused, David Leon Stefanczuk, made his first appearance. “I’m all for it,” she says.
Sudbury’s is not the only police force to take this approach in response to the ongoing epidemic, which claimed 1,471 lives across the province in 2018 (up from 1,265 in 2017). Also in May, the OPP charged a dealer with manslaughter — a homicide committed without the intention to cause death — in Latchford, a town in northeastern Ontario. North Bay police used the same tactic in November 2018. According to the OPP, the force has laid such charges 16 times since 2017, most of them in northern and western regions.
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It’s unclear whether this will prove a winning strategy, as all the cases are still before the courts. (In 2017, Brampton police charged Andrew Earl Allison with manslaughter for having sold drugs to a man who later died of an overdose. He eventually pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of criminal negligence causing death.)
Paul Pederson, Sudbury’s top cop and the president of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, says he hopes the approach will act as a deterrent. “The tactic that police are employing is trying to hold offenders accountable to the full weight of the law and as appropriate,” he says. “When people start hearing that what they are doing is killing people and we're holding them accountable to it, for sure we hope that there are people that will sit up and take notice.”
Manslaughter charges are still relatively rare, according to Pederson. Drawing a definite line between the drugs consumed and the dealer, he says, can be impossible, and causation can be a complicated matter: “Was the death specifically related to that substance, or were there other factors directly involved with the person's health?”
Criminal defence lawyer Ari Goldkind, who has taken similar cases to the Ontario Superior Court, cautions that manslaughter charges may not always be appropriate. “If somebody who sells someone a little bit of coke laces it with fentanyl, and that person who thinks they're doing a line or two of coke dies, that's really the argument for going after the dealer who is endangering an unsuspecting user's life,” he says. “Where the manslaughter becomes a stretch is if somebody knows they're buying fentanyl or knows they’re buying carfentanil … that's a much harder legal hurdle to get over.”
Others argue that the overall approach is misguided. John Rimore, the executive director of the Sudbury branch of the John Howard Society, a national non-profit that focuses on crime prevention and prison reform, believes that the threat of a stiffer penalty won’t change anything. “The reality is, it doesn’t deter people,” says Rimore. “Deterrence will not stop the social problem of substance abuse.”
He says that the provincial government should prioritize prevention and points to supervised-consumption sites as a better tool for fighting the opioid crisis. “We have to look at things like that to actually assist to use safe drugs and then give them the information and support they need to try to wean themselves off the drugs to give them alternatives,” he says. “These things cost one heck of a lot of money, and if we don't want to put that money into it, then we're going to just keep putting Band-Aids on the symptom rather than trying to cure the problem.” Last year, the Progressive Conservative government capped the number of supervised-injection sites at 21, a move that sparked criticism from experts.
Canadian police forces have increasingly been adopting new strategies to combat the crisis. In July 2017, for example, the OPP purchased naloxone injection kits for its officers. Since September 2017 the medication, which temporarily reverses the effects of an opioid overdose, was administered 94 times, saving 88 lives according to OPP spokesperson Carlo Berardi.
Alana McCutcheon of the OPP’s Organized Crime Enforcement Bureau says that the concentration of charges in northern and western areas of the province doesn’t reflect a new strategic direction. “There is no one reason we are laying charges in one place rather than the other. It’s just case by case,” she says. “We're laying a charge now in relation to overdose deaths because they are so commonplace right now in Ontario, unfortunately.”
Packham believes that Canadian authorities need to tackle the problem using both preventative and legal approaches. In a prepared statement that she read to TVO.org, she says that governments need to invest in addictions resources. “We also need our legal system to accept responsibility for the severity of the distribution of elicit controlled substances,” she says. “If someone chooses to sell opioids, which are known to be responsible for many deaths, then our courts should deem it manslaughter when a death is involved.”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.
Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.