Fourth Law Enforcement Roundtable on Drugs
March 2021 Meeting Summary


The opioid overdose crisis continues to devastate communities across Canada. Between January 2016 and December 2020, there were 21,174 apparent opioid toxicity deaths in Canada. In 2020, 6,214 people lost their lives to an opioid overdose, making it the deadliest year of the crisis to date. This figure illustrates a reversal of progress made in 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic was a key contributor to this situation, bringing a reduction in health and social services, increased physical distancing and isolation, and border and travel restrictions, which contributed to an increasingly toxic illegal drug supply.   

Public Safety Canada’s (PS) Law Enforcement Roundtables on Drugs reflect the Government of Canada’s commitment to addressing the opioid crisis and other emerging drug threats. To that end, PS actively works within and outside of government to engage domestic and international partners and subject matter experts to develop effective and informed law enforcement policy responses to this crisis and other emerging illegal drug trends. To advance this collaboration, the fourth Law Enforcement Roundtable on Drugs provided a forum for representatives of law enforcement, academia, Indigenous communities, governmental and non-governmental organizations and individuals with lived and living experience of substance use to share insights, perspectives and challenges in responding to the opioid crisis (see Appendix A for a list of organizations represented at the fourth Roundtable).

Since declaring the opioid crisis a public health emergency in 2016, British Columbia (BC) has consistently been one of the Canadian provinces hardest hit by opioid-related harms. This reality was further entrenched with the arrival of COVID-19, when the province set new records for overdose deaths. COVID-19 revealed the resilience of criminal markets, which are highly attuned to demand for substances. The pandemic also exacerbated the existing public health emergency and the socio-economic factors that contribute to problematic substance use.

In this context, Public Safety Canada focused the Roundtable on BC and hosted it virtually on March 4, 11 and 18, 2021. The Roundtable sought to reflect the most pressing current and emerging issues for law enforcement, with a particular focus on BC’s challenges grappling with the pandemic and the opioid crisis. Each session consisted of presentations from experts and an exchange of questions and answers with participants. Over 200 participants attended each of the sessions, and 20 presenters shared their expertise and experiences (see Appendix B for the event agenda).

Key Themes

Organized crime groups have adapted to COVID-19 restrictions

The ability of organized crime groups (OCGs) to adapt quickly to market changes and shifts in consumer preferences has been highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts at the Roundtable spoke to how restrictions imposed to reduce the spread of COVID-19 only slowed OCGs temporarily, and that they quickly adapted to the new reality.

Internationally, one way that OCGs have adapted to COVID-19 border restrictions is by shifting their trafficking routes and modes of transportation. Specifically, OCGs have relied more heavily on commercial cargo shipments since the pandemic started, in addition to trafficking by sea rather than by air. According to experts at the Roundtable, commercial freight in land, marine, and air cargo are expected to continue to be main means of trafficking for the foreseeable future.

OCGs are also expected to absorb smaller groups and expand control of territory, especially in regions across Latin America. Some Latin American countries are expected to start, or expand, manufacturing chemical precursors to make supply chains more reliable. This may fuel domestic production in Canada as more sources for these chemicals become available. Additional broad international trends noted include that production labs appear to be moving to higher-value markets, in order to reduce transit time, and that OCGs are moving into economically disadvantaged communities to exploit and fill gaps left by failing governments and weak rule of law.

Throughout Canada, while the first six months of 2020 saw an overall decrease in drug seizures and quantities, since July 2020, those numbers have rebounded to normal or above-normal levels compared to previous years. In fact, CBSA has reported an overall increase in incoming supply of illegal drugs during the pandemic. BC’s experience mirrors these national trends, with Roundtable participants explaining that, despite an initial reduction in the availability and price of illegal drugs, the COVID-19 pandemic is not having a significant or lasting impact on the illegal market in the province.

For example, although COVID-19 restrictions initially impacted the availability and price of illegal drugs, as the pandemic continued, very little change in street prices was observed in BC. The same cannot be said for drug purity, however. Over 2020 and at the start of 2021, officials in BC found an increase in the toxicity of illegal drugs, particularly increased adulteration with fentanyl, and the resurgence of carfentanil in the illegal supply.

Similarly, BC officials observed an increase in the availability of “designer” fentanyls and other substances mixed with fentanyl. Like other parts of the country, BC also saw the dangerous addition of other substances to the illegal supply, including benzodiazepines (e.g. etizolam). This latter development is particularly concerning as naloxone does not reverse the effects of benzodiazepines, given that they are tranquilizers, not narcotics.

Domestic production of synthetic drugs is an increasing concern

Law enforcement are seeing increasing amounts of methamphetamine, to the point of oversupply, due in large part to the domestic diversion of ephedrine, a key methamphetamine precursor. Additionally, OCGs are moving away from cocaine to drugs like meth because it is easier and more cost effective to produce and bring to market. More generally, there is an oversupply of precursors and pre-precursor chemicals that contribute to domestic production of a range of synthetic drugs. Unsurprisingly, synthetic opioids continue to be identified and seized throughout BC. In light of this, presenters called for greater national regulation of precursor chemicals, and ephedrine in particular.

BC was noted as having a large-scale domestic meth and fentanyl production problem. The province has become a significant player in global methamphetamine and fentanyl economies. For example, BC was cited as a key shipping hub and transit corridor. Coupled with the presence of well-established and internationally connected organized crime networks, the province has become a gateway for fentanyl precursor importations. And there has been a shift in BC production to more rural areas to avoid police detection. Additionally, the manufacturing of drugs within illegal clandestine laboratory conditions creates wide-ranging quality issues. The presence of impurities along with insufficient control and testing measures pose considerable risk for consumers. Finally, Roundtable experts also noted that while the impact of the pandemic was limited, in some parts of BC, an oversupply of some drugs is leading to decreases in prices.

With respect to international supply, unregulated chemicals and precursor chemicals (i.e. ephedrine)  are being increasingly sourced from India, and are a growing problem that Canada should continue to monitor. While China continues to supply precursor and pre-precursor chemicals, there has been a decline in seizures of finished fentanyl from China since 2019. Production of fentanyl appears to have shifted to other countries.

Roundtable experts identified a number of ongoing challenges contributing to domestic production within Canada. Many of these challenges are not unique to Canada. The first relates to “designer precursors”: molecular modifications that create new substitutes to currently regulated pre/precursor chemicals. Because the chemical composition is different than scheduled chemicals, the substances frequently exist outside current laws. Substance-by-substance scheduling was highlighted as not flexible enough to effectively address these issues, leading to “cat and mouse” pursuits.

Additionally, the speed with which new substances and analogues emerge currently outpaces government’s ability to schedule, restrict, and/or prohibit the importation, possession, or distribution of these substances. Finally, experts noted that robust networks, chemical brokers, and third-party purchasers are currently working in the margins of legitimacy. By doing so, they aim to circumvent or defeat proper importation and acquisition processes.

Use of technology (artificial intelligence) and importance of collaborative partnerships between private industry and public sectors key to tackling illegal online sales

With the onset of the pandemic, many retailers and consumers shifted to transacting business online. This phenomenon was also observed within the illegal drug market. With the increased use of the surface and dark web for online sales, there has been an increase in support for collaborative partnerships between private industries and public sectors to address this practice.

The United States Drug Enforcement Agency found success working with Amazon, Inc., who agreed to ban all sales of tableting and encapsulating machines (as well as punches and dies) from its platform. Additionally, Facebook introduced an artificial intelligence solution to automatically remove posts that were deemed “illegal” without the need for a user report. Using the first version of this technology, 7 million posts with explicitly illegal activity were taken down within the first 6 months. Facebook anticipates that more sophisticated versions of this artificial intelligence may be able to detect less explicitly illegal activity. However, it was noted that these measures amount to “mopping the ocean” – four of every 10,000 posts have illegal content, and the sheer volume of activity makes it difficult to keep pace.

At the beginning of the pandemic, a lack of access to legitimate drug supply sources or treatment options may have driven people that use opioids to rely on illicit sources, both on and offline. Fentanyl is not usually advertised in online consumer marketing or sales; instead it is typically included in other drugs, which creates challenges for digital surveillance of fentanyl sales. Some websites have taken to banning the name in their search bar, but sales information can still be found under “pharmaceutical intermediate” subcategories. Other sellers have adopted image-based marketing and sales to circumnavigate the bans.

Strong support for and movement towards health-based solutions to both interacting with individuals who use substances and also to approaching drug cases

Calls to change Canada's criminal justice approach to substance use have been growing in recent months. Key stakeholders are calling for Canada to decriminalize the simple possession of illegal drugs.

Law enforcement from the west coast who attended sessions are supportive of this initiative. In fact, many advocated for health-based solutions to the opioid crisis. It became clear during the Roundtable that law enforcement in parts of BC already operate under a model of de facto decriminalization of simple possession. Additionally, they are leading the push for improved access to a safe supply and work towards more formal decriminalization of simple possession in the region. Law enforcement noted that they want to focus on those doing the most harm, i.e. by targeting importers, manufacturers and traffickers. Their strategy is to have compassion for those with substance use disorder, recognizing the need for a health-led approach.

This approach was echoed in the BC First Nations Justice Strategy, released in 2020. The Strategy views decriminalization as facilitating the presumption of diversion. Participants were encouraged to see decriminalization not only as a health issue, but also as a tool for correcting social injustice. Decriminalization can create a path for people suffering from addiction to get the help they need to address root causes of their substance use, by eliminating the threat of incarceration and providing access to education and resources.

Panelists cautioned that a Canadian solution will be needed for this Canadian problem, and that the details are very important. Should the current approach to controlled substances change, careful consideration must be given to all parties affected by the changes.

Another tool/approach discussed during the Roundtable is diversion. There is an identified need to ensure resources are available for individuals to be diverted away from the criminal justice system. At the same time, diversion approaches should not assume that people want treatment, which could set them up for failure if that is not their desired outcome.

There are vast disparities in access to treatment in rural and remote communities.  There are challenges for law enforcement in areas where there are no programs, services or supports to which to divert people. A range of treatment and support services need to be in place to support the role of law enforcement.

Importance of relationship building with and within communities

BC law enforcement officials presenting at the Roundtable were unequivocal about the importance of building relationships with the communities they are serving and the availability of services (i.e. supervised consumption sites). Participants shared innovative ways of connecting with people in their community and improving public safety, including the use of newsletters to advise people of dangerous batches of particular substances. Some panelists spoke about their efforts to work with community partners to make referrals to health and social services for those facing substance use issues, and with whom they make a point to interact in positive, supportive ways.

Gaps and Opportunities

The Roundtable brought to our attention some pressure points which need to be considered and addressed.

Worsening illegal drug toxicity situation in British Columbia

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, law enforcement officials have observed an increase in the toxicity of street drugs, particularly with respect to fentanyl. It comes as no surprise then that 2020 marked BC’s worst year on record in terms of drug toxicity deaths, with an overall rate 2.5 times higher than the national average. During the Roundtable discussions, panelists noted that the situation is particularly dire in Vancouver, where the rate of drug toxicity deaths is 4.3 times higher than the national average. In fact, drug toxicity is currently the leading cause of death in the City of Vancouver.

Paired with worsening drug toxicity, Roundtable participants heard that COVID-19 has negatively impacted access to, and use of, safe consumption practices in BC, which in turn has further exacerbated the number of drug toxicity deaths. For instance, due to closures and/or reduced operating hours of overdose consumption sites, experts observed a 50% decline in the number of people accessing these services in April and May of 2020. Reductions in supportive housing and shelter bed availability, along with an uptick in the use of single-occupancy hotel rooms has also been problematic, with fewer individuals using the “buddy” method to avoid using drugs in isolation.

Improving national regulations of precursor and pre-precursor chemicals

Participants also heard from multiple sources about the need to improve national regulations of precursor and pre-precursor chemicals. Experts noted that the current regime does not regulate several key chemicals, including ephedrine, which is used to produce methamphetamine. In addition, concerns were expressed about the existing substance-by-substance approach to scheduling, which was said to be inflexible and prevents the seizure of analogue drugs.

Current regulations that support the detection, interdiction, and/or seizure of chemicals used to produce synthetic drugs within Canada were identified as easily exploited or circumvented. As such, panelists highlighted the need for national-level strategic policy and enhanced measures to limit or prohibit the importation, possession, and distribution of regulated chemicals and commercial-sized lab equipment. They also called for an expedited process for regulatory controls for chemicals that have no legitimate industry use.

Topics for Future Discussion

During the Roundtable, several valuable points were raised that deserve more discussion and reflection.

Rural considerations

BC law enforcement officials who took part in the Roundtable reported a shift in illegal drug production to more rural areas of the province. Rural clandestine laboratories pose unique challenges for law enforcement, as they are often larger than urban production sites. In addition, remote areas often have limited resources (e.g. social services, healthcare, law enforcement), which makes it more difficult for such operations to be identified and dismantled. Given the unique challenges associated with rural clandestine laboratories, Roundtable participants felt it would be valuable to discuss this topic in greater detail at a later date.

Canadian-made solutions for diversion and decriminalization from a public safety perspective

The importance of exploring diversion and/or decriminalization of simple possession through a health equity lens was raised by several Roundtable participants. However, it was also noted that further discussion was required about the potential implications of such a shift on law enforcement activities.

One of the questions raised during the Roundtable was how law enforcement would be expected to work with the healthcare/treatment system in Canada. In addition, there was some discussion about how the new Public Prosecution Service of Canada directive on the prosecution of simple possession charges would affect law enforcement’s use of discretion with respect to these charges.

Public-private partnerships to tackle illegal online sales

The viability of public-private partnerships to tackle illegal online sales was also a topic of interest. Participants wanted to know how the federal government could work with various industry leaders not only to combat the illegal online sale of regulated/scheduled chemical products, but also to increase awareness about products being diverted from legitimate sources and educate companies that sell such products online about the serious public health and law enforcement impacts of this diversion.

Appendix A: Organizations Represented at the Roundtable

Appendix B: Agenda – Fourth Law Enforcement Roundtable on Drugs

1. Current and Emerging Trends in the Illicit Drug Supply Chain

This session examines current and emerging supply trends of the illicit drug market domestically and internationally, and the adaptability of organized crime groups in production and trafficking, including illicit online sales, of drugs under increased restrictions, closures and supply chain disruptions due to COVID-19. A particular focus will be put on how these trends affect Canada, and lessons to be learned.


2. Trends in Policing and Prosecuting Drug Cases

This session examines current challenges of prosecuting drug cases, including compliance with R. v. Jordan, and promising diversion practices from a public safety perspective. A particular focus will be placed on proposing innovative approaches and solutions to these challenges with the view to discovering a way forward. 


3. Policing in a Time of Dual Crisis: Opioids and COVID-19 in British Columbia

This session examines the impacts of COVID-19 on the state of the opioid crisis and other illicit drugs in British Columbia. Exploring law enforcement responses to the dual crisis, this session aims to better understand the current state of the drug supply, how demand might be influencing new trends in the drug market, and insights into how we might anticipate the drug supply shifting in the future.

This session will also reflect on what the interaction between COVID-19 and the opioid crisis have taught us about the law enforcement approaches to the dual crisis, responses to the opioid crisis and the illegal drug supply, and if efforts should be adapted. A particular focus will be put on the impact of this dual crisis on First Nations in British Columbia, their response, and how the dual crisis is exposing and exploiting other vulnerable populations.  


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