Addiction experts criticize covert police operations near drug use in Calgary
Steps from Calgary’s only monitored consumption point, a man unknowingly sold an undercover cop a small amount of methamphetamine – one fifth of a gram in a clear plastic bag for $ 10.
Court documents show that Michael Hassard was unsure of the plainclothes man when he asked to buy drugs, but a woman Hassard knew vouched for the buyer and his friend.
A short time later, Hassard was arrested by uniformed officers. He was charged with trafficking in human beings and possession of the proceeds of crime under $ 5,000.
His arrest was part of a December 2018 campaign by the Calgary Police Service called Operation Desist, which aimed to stifle meth supplies and target dealers who are exploiting the weak.
Addicts and legal experts argue that the sting failed on both fronts and continued to harass an already vulnerable group.
Hassard’s experience sheds light on covert efforts to criminalize activity around the monitored consumer site and its users, says Rebecca Haines-Saah, associate professor of community health sciences at the University of Calgary.
With the Alberta government planning to shut down the Safeworks facility, it is vitally important that people understand how the police there affect public perception and divided opinion about inner-city service, according to Haines-Saah.
A 2018 police report showed a 29 percent increase in calls to Safeworks and a 276 percent increase in drug-related calls compared to the three-year average.
The United Conservative Government said in a report on drug use locations in Alberta that the Calgary data showed “residents’ concerns were justified”. In May, the province cited disruptions in the area for the site’s closure.
The government confirmed this week that Safeworks will remain open until two new locations are secured for similar services.
Safe consumption points allow people to consume substances under the supervision of trained personnel who provide emergency care in the event of an overdose.
Data was limited, police said
Hassard has not yet been convicted but has pleaded guilty to both charges. In January, a judge denied the man’s request to stay on trial on an imprisonment basis.
Hassard’s attorney Robin McIntyre says people arrested for similar crimes have been behind bars for months to years.
“The moment you’ve been selling drugs, even a small amount, we are realistically talking about jail time,” says McIntyre.
Operations like desist can turn people who consume substances into sellers based on circumstances, she adds.
“(Police) offer marginalized and vulnerable people the opportunity to commit a crime,” says McIntyre. “We see people hungry so they can sell the rest of their drugs so they can get some change for a sandwich.”
One of the undercover officers testified at the detention hearing that “it is possible that drug users could be tricked into selling their drugs on demand,” but added that the operation was based on statistics of drug-related calls in the area .
During the cross-examination, police admitted the data was limited. The requests for service were not differentiated according to drug trafficking, drug use or overdose. It is also unknown whether a person has called the police several times, for example.
In a statement, Calgary police denied proposals that Safeworks customers were being targeted.
Court documents show that undercover officers carried out the operation in six different areas, including the city block that houses Safeworks and a nearby park.
A “revolving door”
Haines-Saah says targeting drug dealers will not stop the flow of drugs.
“Target people at street level – they are just being replaced by other people and this sometimes leads to turf wars and exacerbates violence.”
Once charged, they become part of a “revolving door” inside and outside the justice system that creates barriers to employment, housing and addiction support.
Edmonton-based attorney Avnish Nanda says prosecuting undercover operations near drug use locations is against the spirit of Health Canada drug laws granted to licensed operators. Nanda suggests that a heavy police presence can put substance users off duty, increasing the risk of overdosing and unsafe consumables like used needles.
Health Canada declined to comment on appropriate policing around the sites.
Calgary faces record deaths from drug poisoning this year. Government statistics show 205 people died from accidental drug poisoning in the city in the first five months – a 40.4 percent increase over the same period in 2020.
According to Alberta Health Services, there have been no deaths among 185,000 visitors to Safeworks as of January 2018.
Alberta cut funding from Lethbridge’s safe consumption side last July after allegations of financial misconduct surfaced. They later turned out to be unfounded.
Since the site was closed, the number of overdose deaths has risen in the southern Alberta city. At 83.9 per 100,000 inhabitants, the number was 2.5 times higher than the provincial average in May.
Those who advocate and work with substance users suggest that policymakers and the police force should determine sensible steps to ensure the success of Calgary’s two new websites when they open.
Haines-Saah says one solution is to decriminalize illegal substances.
“We tried everything else and we know it doesn’t work,” she says. “The stigma of being criminalized, of interacting with law enforcement agencies is far more costly to our systems and to individuals.”