Retired Canadian law enforcement official urges the New York Legislature: “Step Away” from dangerous drug importation proposal

Former Canadian Border Patrol agent Don Bell testifying at Florida State Senate hearing

This editorial by Don Bell was published in Crain's New York Business on June 19, 2019. Bell, who is a 30-year veteran of law enforcement and border protection in Canada, was chief superintendent of the Ontario Provincial Police, and a director of intelligence and enforcement for the Canada Border Services Agency.

Canada Can't Be New York's Medicine Cabinet: Legislative Proposal Would Open Floodgates to Prescription-Drug Crime

Connected by 445 miles of land and sea border, Canada and New York enjoy a long and deep trade partnership. Canada is New York’s No. 1 customer and sells more goods to the state than it sells to China. This should not mean that New York can capitalize on our highly regarded pharmaceutical drug supply or make Canada the transshipment hub for counterfeit drugs, which would be the result of the state Legislature approving an ill-advised wholesale prescription drug importation proposal.

I’ve been in law enforcement and border protection in Canada for more than 30 years, retiring as a chief superintendent of the Ontario Provincial Police and a director of intelligence and enforcement for the Canada Border Services Agency. I led the fight to combat organized crime, gangs and drug trafficking. It was my job to determine how criminals exploit loopholes to bring deadly illicit drugs across the border.

When I see the New York Legislature working to establish a wholesale prescription drug importation program from “one or more” foreign countries for the purpose of addressing rising costs (a legitimate concern), I see a gigantic loophole that criminals will pounce on to traffic counterfeit drugs into the state. Criminal organizations are already the benefactor of importation loopholes, as evidenced by the devastating opioid crisis.

Importing adulterated prescription drugs is the high-profit, low-risk opportunity criminal enterprises exploit. It will not only endanger New Yorkers but the public safety of any country involved in or exposed to this scheme. As a Canadian and former law enforcement leader, I have many concerns with this proposal.

Recognizing that Canada is such a great trading partner, New York legislators will likely look to its northern neighbor as one of the first sources for their dangerous scheme. This will aggravate the significant drug shortages Canada is already experiencing. Shortages already affect at least 10% of all active drugs available in Canada. Health Canada is not likely to send our safe and genuine medicine already in short supply to New York at the detriment of Canadians. In short, Canada can’t be the pharmacy of New York.

What do these drug shortages mean for New York? Importation would create a demand that that cannot be filled with genuine Canadian prescription drugs. Criminals will exploit the lack of supply and smuggle counterfeit drugs through Canada into New York. They will claim to be Canadian drugs, but they will not have been subject to the quality assurance of the Canadian supply chain. They may never even touch Canadian soil. Even if Canada is not directly selected as a supply country, criminals from other foreign countries will use Canada as a transshipment point for counterfeit drugs.

This is not theory, but fact and unfortunately already reality. Rogue internet pharmacies "flying" the Canadian brand already lure unsuspecting American consumers. These illegal websites transship counterfeit drugs via international mail to New York through our three main postal sites: Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto. These rogue websites with no nexus to Canada will rapidly take advantage of New York’s importation program.

While I can personally attest to the excellence, commitment and the collaborative relationship of Canadian and New York law enforcement, I can tell you with certainty that Canada is not prepared to protect New York from imported counterfeit drugs. Canadian health authorities, border services and law enforcement are neither resourced nor structured to guarantee the safety of the transnational drug shipments that importation would authorize.

Counterfeits are already flooding into New York, even without the legalization of importation. Just this year, the Food and Drug Administration reported the seizure of a half a ton of counterfeit drugs interdicted at JFK airport's International Mail Facility in just one week. The influx of such dangerous products will increase substantially if a statewide wholesale prescription drug importation program were implemented.

I can appreciate the sense of urgency and the appeal of short-term solutions to complex issues. However, attempting to implement a prescription drug importation program which has already failed many times in other states gives established gangs the business opportunity of a lifetime.

The Legislature should step away from this dangerous proposal, which will endanger the public safety of both of our countries and further challenge the already stretched resources of Canadian and New York law enforcement.