Criminal Law

Fentanyl: a crisis with far-reaching consequences

By Jennifer Pritchett, Associate Editor

Toronto criminal lawyer Jordana Goldlist says the Canadian government needs to do more to regulate the prescription of fentanyl that's causing a growing number of users to overdose amid a North American crisis.

“I cannot accept that there are legitimate reasons for prescribing, and therefore making available, such a strong narcotic that it is literally killing people every day,” she tells

“It is the functional equivalent of the 1980s crack epidemic, except this drug is perfectly legal with a prescription.”

Goldlist, principal of JHG Criminal Law, says it’s a public health crisis that is spilling over into the justice system, with addicts getting disproportionately longer prison sentences for drug charges involving fentanyl.

This drug and other opiates are blamed for about 20,000 deaths in the United States and nearly 3,000 more in Canada last year, reports the Canadian Press.

To crack down on the massive problem, police agencies, including the RCMP, are focusing on fentanyl importers, distributors and traffickers, says the article.

Goldlist says more could also be done to curb the amount of the drug out there that comes from prescriptions.

She points to a campaign called Open Pharma that was launched earlier this year to call on the federal government to mandate public disclosure of all payments and transfers of value, such as gifts and meals, from drug manufacturers to doctors, reports the Toronto Star.

Open Pharma, which is backed by some big names in health care and academia, aims to build public awareness around the issue and is calling for federal action.

“Payments from drug companies can be in the form of funding for research, fees for speeches or participation on advisory committees, and coverage of travel expenses for participation in international functions,” says the Star. “Organizations, including hospitals, universities and private medical clinics, are also beneficiaries of funding, some of it philanthropic,” the article says.

The issue is that in the U.S. and countries such as Australia, Japan, the United Kingdom, France, Denmark and other European nations, you can easily find out whether a physician receives payments from drug companies, says the newspaper. You cannot find out this information in Canada, it says.

Goldlist says more transparency is needed around the doctors receiving payments.

As the fentanyl crisis continues, more cases are also appearing in criminal courts, Goldlist says.

“As soon as there are even trace amounts of fentanyl mixed into a substance, Crown prosecutors are automatically asking for penitentiary sentences,” she says.

“Even small amounts of crack, cocaine or heroin, if laced with fentanyl, will mean that the Crown will often ask for a sentence that is two or three times an appropriate one.

“Street dealers are now looking at sentences reflective of a mid- or large-scale drug operation.”

Goldlist says she’s also seeing an influx of import cases, with fentanyl coming from China and being intercepted by the Canada Border Services Agency.

"The cost to the system is significant when you consider that officers from the port of entry are required to attend court to testify in addition to the Ontario police officers,” she says.

"And that says nothing of the cost of investigating, prosecuting, and detaining everyone involved in this epidemic."

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