No matter how you look at it the numbers are staggering and terrifying.  The Public Health Agency of Canada reporting opioid overdoses are increasing in this country.  Between January 2016 and June 2018 more than 9,000 Canadians died from opioids, 2,066 of those deaths between January and June of this year.

In Ottawa, the city’s Public Health office, tells CTV 29 people have died from opioid overdoses in the first six-months of 2018, putting the city on track to reach the tragic 2017 death toll of 64. 

Most of the opioid deaths, 72-percent of them, in Canada involved fentanyl, a highly potent and addictive opioid.  Fentanyl is considered up to 100 times stronger than morphine and is commonly mixed into opioids sold on the street, meaning users don’t know the potency of the drugs they take.

The epidemic has Canadian judges taking notice, handing down tough sentences to those caught trafficking fentanyl. 

In March 2018, Ottawa Pharmacist, Waseem Shaheen, was sentenced to 14 years in prison for dealing fentanyl out of his Rideau Street IDA pharmacy.  Over a two-year period before his October 2014 arrest, Shaheen was responsible for trafficking more than 5,000 fentanyl patches, with a street value of more than $1,000,000.  Shaheen, who owned three Ottawa pharmacies, funneled the drugs out of his Rideau Street location.  His illegal operation tipping off police and the Ontario College of Pharmacists (OCP) after Shaheen faked his own armed-robbery in October 2014.  After a lengthy probe, Ottawa Police detectives and OCP investigators found, Shaheen had been forging prescriptions to get the drugs out of the pharmacy.

“They (OCP investigators) found prescriptions under two different names for 99 fentanyl patches a month,” Ottawa Police Detective Guy Seguin told CTV News, “which would be three patches daily, which in their opinion would be a fatal dose.”

Shaheen’s 14 year prison sentence making history in Canada, it’s the toughest sentence ever handed down to a pharmacist dealing fentanyl.

“I think the sentence is a clear message,” Seguin says, “hopefully a clear deterrent in the court that the justice system takes this very seriously, and hopefully other professionals like Mr. Shaheen will not be involved in trafficking fentanyl.”

In his sentencing decision, Justice Robert Wadden, recognized the fentanyl epidemic, “When trafficked illegally, it is a deadly drug, one that is at the forefront of the opioid crisis ravaging our cities.”

Justice Wadden went on to write that the pharmacist was a trusted member of the community who knew exactly what he was doing, “Mr. Shaheen is not an addict. None of the fentanyl was for his own use. His only apparent motivation was greed. 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 on the misery of others.”

Shaheen’s 14 year prison sentence considered to be a message to others, a tough sentence lawyers are seeing more often in cases involving fentanyl.

“Whatever it takes to get the stuff off the streets is the way the judges are viewing this,” says Ottawa criminal defence lawyer with Armoured Suits, Joshua Clarke.

“Teens are dying and the addictive potential of the drug,” adds Clarke, “even for very small amounts, a patch or two, for a person with no criminal record, we’re seeing a multi-year penitentiary sentence.”

Canadian drug policy expert, Eugene Oscapella, says stiffer sentences can’t be the only answer.

“Call the problem what it is, it’s a problem of a poisoned drug supply,” Oscapella tells CTV Ottawa News.

Oscapella says the focus should be giving addicts safe, medically supervised access to clean drugs, “if the insulin were poisoned we would try and find another source for providing safe insulin to people, and that’s really what we need to look at right now is providing another source of the drugs that people want.”

Oscapella says the idea will save lives, “the only way to get the drugs off the streets is to make them unprofitable and how do you do that, by providing a legitimately reasonable priced supply.  You can’t help people if they’re dead.”

As for Waseem Shaheen, he can longer sell drugs legally in Canada.  He has been stripped of his pharmaceutical license, and has lost all three of his Ottawa pharmacies.

Since his March 2018 sentencing, Shaheen is yet to serve any of his 14 year prison sentence, that’s because he’s appealing his conviction.


with files from The Canadian Press, staff