Record drug bust amplifies need for social supports

MHRN calls for less focus on law enforcement

Katharina Maier, associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg - Supplied photo

The largest drug bust in Prairie history is highlighting the local need for more drug-addiction and social supports in Manitoba.

Semi-truck driver Komalpreet Sidhu, 29, was arrested at the Boissevain port of entry on Jan. 14 while en route to Winnipeg. Authorities found 406 kilograms of methamphetamine in 200 individually wrapped packages hidden in suitcases inside the truck.

The illicit drugs have an estimated street value of more than $50.7 million, which is equivalent to about four million doses of meth, according to a news release from the Canada Border Services Agency.

Sidhu has been charged with importing meth and possession for the purpose of trafficking.

Although police have taken a large amount of drugs out of circulation, that may lead to more problems on the street level, Jonny Mexico, Winnipeg coordinator for the Manitoba Harm Reduction Network (MHRN), says.

“Any time that the drug supply gets destabilized, it doesn’t make things safer for folks,” they say. “Any time there are multiple large drug busts, we become very, very concerned about the safety of our relatives who use substances.”

When people who use drugs can’t access the substance they normally use, or it becomes too expensive, they may turn to other, less-familiar substances. That puts them at a higher risk of overdose, Mexico says.

In addition, the toxicity of drugs could increase.

Between January and October 2023, 355 Manitobans died from drug overdose, according to preliminary data from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. In 2022, there were 418 substance-related deaths in the province.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Mexico says the drug supply was disrupted, and MHRN responded to more overdoses during that time.

Instead of focusing on large-scale drug busts, Mexico says MHRN wants to see substances like meth decriminalized to allow those who use drugs access to a safe legal supply.

Katharina Maier, associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg, shares Mexico’s concerns.

“We know that Manitoba and Canada are facing a severe drug-toxicity crisis that is impacting our most marginalized communities. It’s important for law enforcement to focus on tackling large-scale drug operations and drug busts to tackle the supply side,” she says.

“At the same time, we need to keep in

mind that so long as there is demand for drugs, there’s going to be supply.”

Outside of law enforcement, Maier says there needs to be a focus on providing treatment options for when people are ready to decrease or stop their drug use.

She adds that putting resources into affordable housing, mental- and physical-health supports and access to food is a crucial component to fighting the opioid crisis.

“Just because some drugs are stopped from entering the streets doesn’t mean other ones (won’t) enter the streets, which could be potentially more toxic, laced, cut and cause harm on the street,” Maier says.

Published in Volume 78, Number 18 of The Uniter (February 15, 2024)

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