A burly man wearing a clown mask walks into a pharmacy. Brandishing a large knife, he heads straight for the dispensing counter and hands the pharmacist a note.
The pharmacist, Waseem Shaheen, opens the narcotics safe and fills a white garbage bag with fentanyl patches while the impatient robber waves his knife threateningly.
Shaheen hands over the bag and drops to his knees, hands in the air as the clown robber thrusts the knife through the air a few more times before beating a hasty retreat.
“I got robbed,” Shaheen told a 911 operator minutes later.
“What was taken?” the operator asked.
Only this was no robbery at all.
It was a charade, concocted by Shaheen to cover up an illicit drug-dealing operation in which he trafficked at least 5,000 fentanyl patches out the back door of his Ottawa pharmacy.
While the provincial government monitors the prescribing and dispensing of opioids in Ontario, no alarms were raised by the conspicuous volumes moving through Shaheen’s pharmacy.
In fact, those oversight and tracking systems haven’t caught a single drug dealing pharmacist in the last five years, a Toronto Star/Global News/Ryerson School of Journalism investigation has found. Instead, every pharmacist caught dealing drugs was, like Shaheen, done in by bad luck or good police work.
In the end, Shaheen was charged, convicted and sentenced to a 14-year prison term only after he called the police to report the robbery himself. He is appealing.
Listen to the 911 call
After compiling and analyzing disciplinary records from the Ontario College of Pharmacists between 2013 and 2017, the investigation found 241 pharmacists who have put massive amounts of deadly opioids onto the street; defrauded the provincial drug benefit plan for millions of dollars; sexually harassed and assaulted their patients and employees; and committed fatal dispensing errors.
While this represents just 1.5 per cent of the more than 16,000 pharmacists in the province, the investigation found this even small number of health-care professionals can cause a disproportionate amount of harm to patients and to the public purse.
“Most pharmacists are tremendous people. They’re knowledgeable, they’re extremely helpful and they are an important part of the health-care team. The very small number of pharmacists, or doctors for that matter, who engage in this sort of behaviour, cause a lot of harm,” said Dr. David Juurlink, professor of pharmacology at the University of Toronto.
During those five years, the college sanctioned 15 pharmacists for illegally dealing prescription medication, nine of whom dealt opioids. Health Canada data suggests the actual number could be far greater because there are more drugs missing from pharmacies than prosecutions and disciplinary cases can account for.
Nearly 3.5 million doses of prescription drugs disappeared from Ontario pharmacies from 2013 to 2017, the data shows. And the growth is startling: from about 2,200 reports of drug losses in 2013 to more than 30,000 last year. The vast majority of those losses were dangerous opioids.
For example, annual reported losses of hydromorphone — a opioid five times more potent than morphine — rose from about 21,000 to 63,000 tablets in the five years, totalling more than 200,000 tablets missing from pharmacy shelves.
Three-quarters of reports listed the reason for the drug losses as “unexplained.”
Health Minister Christine Elliott declined an interview request for this story but spokesperson Hayley Chazan sent a statement:
“Our government takes patient safety very seriously. The inappropriate use, abuse and diversion of prescription narcotics and controlled substances are very serious public health concerns,” the statement read. “Minister Elliott will continue to work with partners to discuss harm reduction strategies and ensure those struggling with addiction get the help they need.”
While sources of street opioids vary, and most are illegally imported, the morphine, hydromorphone, oxycodone and fentanyl that originates in the health care system is an alarming trend.
Opioid-related deaths in Ontario have almost doubled in the last five years, rising from 639 in 2013 to 1,265 in 2017, according to Public Health Ontario. More than 70 per cent of opioid deaths involve fentanyl, according to federal data.
“It’s quite often the case that people who end up with opioid addiction, who are at a very high risk of death, began with experimentation on a pill that was prescribed to someone else,” Juurlink said. “Aside from being criminal and deeply unethical, a pharmacist who introduces large amounts of opioids into society — or any other drug prone to abuse — is perpetuating harm in a very real way.”
The police investigation into Shaheen found that he trafficked more than 5,000 fentanyl patches with a street value of over $1 million.
Each patch is typically cut into four before being sold to an addict who eats, smokes or injects the contents. And because of its potency, each quarter patch could kill anyone who doesn’t have a high tolerance for opioids.
After discovering that an assistant in his pharmacy had reported the large orders of patches in his store to the college of pharmacists, Shaheen scrambled to cover his tracks.
“The robbery accomplished exactly what Mr. Shaheen had sought. It allowed him to falsely claim that a large amount of fentanyl had been stolen, an amount that he knew had not been taken,” Judge Robert Wadden said at Shaheen’s sentencing.
“As a trained professional, he would have been aware of the debilitating and deadly effects of this drug in the hands of addicts. Yet he conducted a drug trafficking scheme worth over a million dollars, profiting off the misery of others.”
Two days before the robbery, Shaheen met the man to whom he had been selling the patches in a McDonald’s.
“I need your help,” Shaheen told Mehdi Rostaee.
“Can you send somebody to the pharmacy … when I am there?” Shaheen asked. “I will give him whatever I have in the safe,”
“OK,” said Rostaee, whose surreptitious recording of the conversation was entered into evidence during Shaheen’s trial last October. “When do you want to do it?”
“Sunday,” Shaheen responded.
“You’re alone?” asked Rostaee.
“Yeah … We have to be smart and natural about it.”
Ottawa police who arrived the afternoon of the faked robbery in October 2014 described Shaheen as “scared” and “very stressed.”