Courtesy of Globe and Mail
A B.C. man convicted of trafficking and possessing large amounts of fentanyl has been sentenced to 14 years in prison – the most significant sentence involving the deadly synthetic opioid since B.C.’s overdose crisis began.
The stiff punishment, handed down in the Provincial Court of British Columbia this week, comes as Canada’s public prosecution service aims to toughen its stand on illicit fentanyl, arguing it is worse than heroin and has become a scourge in this country. Last year, 914 people in B.C. died of illicit-drug overdoses, with about 60 per cent of those deaths linked to fentanyl.
Walter James McCormick, 53, was one of 10 people arrested in 2015 during the Vancouver Police Department’s Project Tainted operation, which aimed to disrupt fentanyl distribution lines. Searches of his property turned up 27,000 fentanyl pills, four kilograms of cocaine, one kilogram of methamphetamine and an assortment of other drugs, money and firearms. He pleaded guilty to one count of trafficking and three counts of possession for the purpose of trafficking.
While out on bail, Mr. McCormick was charged with a number of new offences in Richmond and pleaded guilty to an amended single count that he possessed fentanyl, marijuana, cocaine and alprazolam for the purposes of trafficking.
The Crown sought a total of 18 years in prison, describing it as an “exemplary sentence for an exemplary case.” The defence sought eight or nine years.
Mr. McCormick’s lawyer, Lawrence Myers, said while it is clear that illicit fentanyl has grown to be a significant concern, making an example of his client would not better the situation.
“I think we have to be very careful not to have a knee-jerk vigilante reaction,” Mr. Myers said. “It’s important for us to address the problem without believing that a lengthy sentence is going to deter people or solve the problem.”
In her decision, Justice Bonnie Craig acknowledged that Mr. McCormick “did not create the crisis of opioid addiction” and said there is no evidence his offences caused any fatal overdoses. However, the judge described him as “an entrenched drug trafficker motivated by self-interest” and said his offences were “predatory in nature.”
Citing the fact Mr. McCormick possessed multiple kilograms of cutting agents, a pill press and firearms despite a lifetime prohibition, Justice Craig said she viewed his moral culpability as “very high,” adding that his offences “certainly introduced a high level of risk to the community.”
Mr. McCormick received eight years’ imprisonment for his Vancouver offences and six years for his Richmond offences.
Asked about his client’s disposition after sentencing, Mr. Myers said he believed his client was “ashamed of himself and depressed about where it’s taken him.”
To date, legal experts and justice officials across North America have taken different approaches to fentanyl-related drug offences. For example, last July, a B.C. Supreme Court judge in Kelowna declined to consider the presence of fentanyl an aggravating factor when sentencing a man convicted of trafficking cocaine as well as the synthetic opioid, saying fentanyl is a Schedule 1 drug like cocaine and heroin and must be treated the same.
But the state of New Hampshire, which has seen fentanyl-related overdose deaths climb in recent years, brought back a rarely used drug statute under which anyone who knowingly manufactures, sells or dispenses a controlled drug that results in the death of someone who ingested it is liable for that death.
The Public Prosecution Service of Canada is pushing for stiffer sentences for fentanyl-related offences, saying in its annual report that it has “gathered expert evidence to support the argument that the appropriate sentence range upon conviction for fentanyl trafficking or manufacturing should be higher than the starting point for morphine and heroin sentences.”
Sergeant Randy Fincham, a spokesman for the Vancouver police, said his department chooses to deploy its resources investigating the organized crime groups and higher-level traffickers who supply the street-level market and use intimidation or violence to control it.