More RCMP staff sought in drug fight

The Canadian government needs to fill more than 200 federal RCMP vacancies in B.C. to help the province deal with its drug overdose crisis, B.C.’s director of police services said Monday.

Clayton Pecknold, who co-chairs the province’s task force on overdose response, credited the federal government with introducing legislation to ease the way for safe consumption sites and prevent the smuggling of opioids into Canada.

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“But there’s more they can do,” he said. “We are still down in the number of RCMP officers that we have doing federal drug enforcement in this province. We’d like to see the federal government act quickly on filling those positions.”

Pecknold said the RCMP is supposed to have more than 900 federal officers and civilians handling drug investigations, counter-terrorism and other federal duties in province. As of October, there were only about 700, he said.

The province, meanwhile, has devoted “a considerable amount of money” to its anti-gang Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit and the Organized Crime Agency of B.C., Pecknold said. “So we’re doing our part.”

He made the comments as the B.C. Coroners Service released statistics showing that 128 people died from illicit drug overdoses in November, the worst tally for a single month in recent memory. So far this year, 755 people have died across the province, most of them from overdoses linked to fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that officials say has been entering Canada by mail from China.

The RCMP was unavailable for comment, but Scott Bardsley, a spokesperson for federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, blamed the problem on the former Conservative government for cutting half a billion dollars from the RCMP’s budget over the past four years.

“One of the consequences was a steady erosion of funding for the federal policing program, which is not able to fill all its positions in “E” Division [British Columbia],” he said.

The federal government is conducting an Integrity Review to assess whether the RCMP has the resources it needs to deliver on its mandate and, in the meantime, a temporary fund was created to ensure the force can provide “critical services” to Canadians, Bardsley said.

He also said the federal Liberal government is committed to strengthening its response to the crisis. Health Minister Jane Philpott and Goodale last week announced proposed legislation to restore harm reduction as a key part of its drug strategy, prohibit the unregistered import of pill presses, and allow Canada border officers to inspect suspicious mail weighing less than 30 grams.

Pecknold said he recognizes the overdose problem will not be solved by law enforcement efforts at the border.

“But clearly, when you’re bringing in this level of toxic substance that has been described as a poison, we’ve got to try to stem it at the border,” he said.

He said drug smuggling investigations are complex and require specialized officers with a high degree of ability.

“I would like to see the federal government expedite whatever’s necessary to get us those positions in British Columbia,” Pecknold said. “Now whether that’s a budgetary challenge or a redistribution of federal resources, I leave to them. But fill our holes.”

lkines@timescolonist.com

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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