On August 28, Ontario Provincial Police proudly displayed a literal wall of cocaine at their headquarters. At 1,062 kilograms of pure cocaine, it was the biggest drug bust in Ontario’s history.
When massive busts such as this one occur, they’re largely perceived as a win for the police. And while it’s true that cops are just doing their jobs, what about the ripple effect for people who use drugs?
“With the amount of pure cocaine seized during Project HOPE, we’ve stopped many criminals from causing more harm to our communities while removing a quarter of a billion dollars from the criminal economy,” Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner J.V.N. Hawkes said at a press conference on Monday.
But according Nicholas Boyce, who has been working in harm reduction for over 17 years, including provincially throughout Ontario, the bust could have detrimental effects on people who use drugs.
“It’s actually going to contribute to the harm,” Boyce told VICE. “The problem is when you tackle the supply side, you’re not addressing the demand—the demand for the drugs, people who want or need them.”
Photo via Ontario Provincial Police
Boyce said that cutting off a major supply source means people may resort to finding alternatives. For example, low-level dealers may be looking for drugs similar to cocaine in order to sustain business—such as lesser-known synthetic drugs. It also could mean that with a dwindling supply, dealers will be more likely to cut their cocaine.
All of this could mean a more dangerous market for people using drugs at a time when thousands of people are already dying across the country from opioid overdoses annually.
Police nodded at the issue of cocaine being cut with other substances, saying that the Project HOPE bust prevented this from happening without acknowledging removing cocaine from the market could also lead to adulteration.
“The distribution and sales cycle would see this cocaine cut many times for street level dealers with untold, dangerous, and potentially lethal additives for higher resale value,” Hawkes said. Police claimed the street value of the over 1,000 kilos of coke they seized was $250 million.
During the press conference, Hawkes mentioned fentanyl-contaminated cocaine, referring to it as a “filler” that the product they seized would be cut with. But Boyce said that fentanyl getting into cocaine is relatively rare in Ontario—a phenomenon that is more likely accidental than intentional since cocaine is an upper and fentanyl is a downer.
Michael Parkinson of the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council in Ontario said that in addition to the effects people using drugs may face, a detrimental result of law enforcement crackdowns on drugs is an increase in drug-related violence.
“At the end of the day, police are required to enforce the Canadian Criminal Code, and that code is applied when upstream efforts from health, social and community sectors do not exist or have failed,” Parkinson said. “The law is an extremely expensive downstream intervention compared to potential demand-side initiatives in prevention, treatment, and harm reduction.”
Bill Bogart, author of Off the Street: Legalizing Drugs, said that the major bust will likely lead to the price of cocaine going up. It also could drive people who use cocaine to other drugs.
“Let’s step back and think about what the consequences are: It’s illusionary to think that if people can’t have access to their preferred drug, they won’t do drugs,” he said. Bogart also mentioned that if the price of cocaine rises, illegal activity to support that rise could also increase.
“People will become more desperate for cocaine because the shortage will drive up the prices, or they’ll turn to other drugs,” he said.
Bogart said that when large busts like this happen, it would make sense to put out a public health warning to people about how the drug market could become increasingly volatile, affecting supply. But in Ontario, a place where at least two people a day die from opioid overdose, this is not a system that is in place.
“There are so many missed opportunities for cross-sector collaboration on drug-related issues,” Parkinson said. A lack of resources, he said, is a major reason why these missed opportunities exist. Boyce echoed this sentiment, saying that in Ontario, there is not good sharing of information between law enforcement and health.
“The solutions are not particularly tricky, but there is simply no capacity to take in one more thing, especially since the overdose crisis has local communities running ragged and falling further behind,” Parkinson said.
The same day the major cocaine bust was announced, harm reduction and health care workers hand-delivered Premier Kathleen Wynne a letter urging Ontario to declare an official emergency due to the current opioid crisis that would free up funding and potentially save lives. Wynne met with them, but an emergency still has yet to be declared.
Boyce stresses that with such a large bust happening, people using cocaine should take extra care to practice harm reduction measures. That means getting to know who you buy from, testing your drugs, not using alone, getting trained in using the opioid overdose antidote naloxone, and trying small amounts at a time. With the threat of fentanyl, he said, knowing if your dealer is selling other drugs, such as opioids, is critical—and ensuring that if you buy drugs, you were given the proper bag. With the popularity of party drugs, Boyce said, all venues should be keeping naloxone on-site.
“We’ve had a hundred years of drug prohibition in Canada, and drugs are still widely available and relatively cheap,” Boyce said. “This might put a small dent in things for now, but in the grand scheme of things, we’re not addressing the demand side—we’re attacking the supply.”
Ultimately, while drug use is criminalized, that demand side is unlikely to be addressed.
“The chronic concern would be the absence of non-enforcement systems to reduce the demand for substances, thus leaving enforcement and justice systems to punish the symptoms,” Parkinson said. “Those in the lurch by this bust are pretty much on their own.”