Don Bell at PSM's 2018 Interchange. Source: PSM

This editorial by Don Bell was published in Inside Sources on November 20, 2018. Bell, who was a panelist at PSM's 2018 Interchange, is the former chief superintendent of the Ontario Provincial Police.

Gangs Are Exacerbating the Fentanyl Epidemic

The relationship between the United States and Canada of late has been nothing short of tumultuous. However, in the midst of the bitter exchanges and more recent positive developments on trade, a unique opportunity exists to help save lives and protect our respective borders. In short, it’s time that both countries work together to face a new common threat posed by illegally imported fentanyl, a borderless killer. It’s an area of collaboration that will only strengthen the efforts of U.S. and Canadian law enforcement agencies to address this crisis.

As someone who spent more than 30 years in law enforcement, I know firsthand how the gang-backed trafficking of illicit narcotics from foreign countries, such as China, poses a direct threat to communities in Canada and in the United States. Fentanyl, in particular, is a synthetic opioid used to lace cocaine, heroin, counterfeit opioids and other counterfeit medicines, with devastating effect. Last year alone, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl led to nearly 30,000 overdose deaths in the United States and more than 4,000 in Canada.

Stemming the drug flow has been a difficult task for several reasons. For instance, in a prominent investigation in Canada last year, authorities discovered a pill press in a Calgary narcotics laboratory capable of producing 18,000 fake OxyContin pills per hour. If that was not bad enough, the pills contained no oxycodone; they were filled with fentanyl, almost guaranteeing the overdose of the eventual recipients. The sophistication and scale of these operations are possible because of the backing they enjoy through gangs with connections to China, as well as the notorious Hells Angels, a gang both the United States and Canada have designated as an organized crime syndicate.

Canada does not simply have to worry about infiltration; we need to worry about the long-term threat — an important distinction to keep in mind. In the past, gang violence was sporadic, less systemic. Historically, Canada has successfully tackled organized crime, as exemplified with the Hells Angels enforcement strategy of the early 2000s. We helped stamp out these criminals because of the concerted effort of law enforcement. But now with the proliferation of street gangs and the tremendous profit fentanyl trafficking offers, Canadian gangs have returned in force and are setting up shop to stay. They establish front businesses, launder money, and pose as otherwise law-abiding citizens. They take advantage of our country and try to put down roots to spread their poisonous wares across Canada and the United States.

To address this imminent threat, U.S. and Canadian law enforcement agencies need to work even closer together.

First, we must raise public awareness of the danger of illicit drugs. According to the Canadian Intelligence Service of Canada, these drugs are the top source of income for organized criminals (generally speaking, organized crime costs Canadians $800 million annually).

As Statistics Canada Director General Lynn Barr-Telford recently noted, gang-related homicides have also nearly doubled since 2013. Canadians are, by nature, a trusting, welcoming people. As a society, that is how we should remain. But we cannot, even for a second, pretend that our own spike in gang violence, driven increasingly by the rapid trafficking in opioids, fentanyl and counterfeit drugs, will end without a concerted effort to educate and empower the public.

Second, we must continue to enhance our intelligence-sharing efforts and bilateral joint task forces, since they are now more important than ever. Recent efforts highlight our collective effect when we work together. In late 2017, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Federal Bureau of Investigation announced charges against nine individuals, including the trafficking of fentanyl. A separate operation by Ontario Provincial Police Organized Crime Enforcement Bureau known as Project SILKSTONE seized 11,500 pills containing fentanyl.

Finally, we must reinforce our efforts to crack down on the dark web. As we have seen in recent years, the use of encryption techniques, virtually untraceable screennames, and crypto payment methods such as Bitcoins have created a black market for illegal fentanyl sales that pose a daily threat for law enforcement. We have already experienced this with cocaine, methamphetamines and other illegal substances that have poured over our borders in years past.

The lure of trafficking in illegal fake opioids and fentanyl from online sources will continue to be irresistible for criminals, given the significant financial incentive trafficking imported fentanyl provides. Our two countries should resist any efforts to weaken our existing collaboration through drug importation proposals currently under consideration in the United States, which would widen the loopholes through which these criminals can infiltrate the drug supply.

The good news is that we know how to root out gangs, we have all the right tools at our disposal and, most important, we have the will to undertake the task. It is time to deepen our partnership and face this threat together.

The threat of fentanyl is new, but Canadians do not back down from dangerous, necessary tasks. We share this with our American neighbors. And by working together, we will reduce the threat posed by illegal fentanyl that is ravaging communities north and south of the U.S.-Canada border. Stated simply, we have no choice.