The fentanyl epidemic battering the Columbia Valley won’t go away unless community members step up and help local law enforcement efforts, the blunt speaking local RCMP detachment commander told Invermere council last week.
The forthright message came during Columbia Valley RCMP Sergeant Bob Vatamaniuck’s quarterly report, delivered at council’s Tuesday, November 14th meeting, and came in response to questions from councillor Al Miller as to what police are doing about the pervasive problem, which has claimed two lives in the past 10 months in the Valley.
“In order to have any enforcement action, I need people with intimate knowledge of that scene to share details with us,” said Sgt. Vatamaniuck. “Unfortunately people are not coming to us with that information. If your constituents are asking ‘why aren’t the police doing anything?’, I challenge you to put back to them ‘what are you doing to help the police?’”
He added there is a number of ways people can pass on such information covertly and anonymously, but emphasized that the information needs to be fact-based, not merely gossip and rumours.
“People come to us with rumours all the time, but it’s hard to act on them. Often we’ll ask ‘how do you know he got fentanyl there (at an alleged dealers house)?’ And we’ll get a reply ‘well, he was seen there.’ But when we ask who saw him there and how do you know it was fentanyl that he got there, it becomes clear that this is hearsay,” said Sgt. Vatamaniuck. “The Charter of Rights does not allow us to go kick in a door just because somebody tells us ‘everybody knows he’s dealing drugs.’ We need to have the facts straight.”
Sgt. Vatamaniuck empathized with Mr. Miller, and expressed his own considerable frustration at not being able to do more.
“Without the community giving us a foundation of investigative avenues, it’s really difficult,” he said. “Nobody’s seen anything like this (fentanyl). Not meth, not crack. It’s a killer. It’s really addictive, almost instantaneously.”
After taking pains to highlight how different fentanyl is from any of the other street drugs to proceed it, Sgt. Vatamaniuck did add that the way for the Valley to ultimately beat fentanyl is the same way to beat other drugs — through community involvement.
“In that respect this (fentanyl) epidemic is no different (than other drug epidemics). We need neighbours helping each other, looking out for each other. There has to be collaboration between the police and the people. If there isn’t, this won’t go away,” he said. “It’s a community issue and it’s a social issue. The RCMP can’t singlehandedly fight this fight.”
Sgt. Vatamaniuck added that even when the RCMP do put a local fentanyl dealer away, the market remains and another dealer often takes the first one’s place quite quickly.
“It’s like a terrible perpetual motion machine that shouldn’t be there, but is,” he said.
Several councillors added that education and outreach are as important in combating fentanyl use as law enforcement.
Later on in the quarterly report councillor Greg Anderson asked if the local RCMP have had any complaints pertaining to the new Green Peak Medical medicinal marijuana and cannabis store in Athalmer.
“I have not had one person come to me with a complaint since the dispensary opened (last winter), and crime statistics have not changed in that time,” replied Sgt. Vatamaniuck.
Mr. Anderson related that he was asking because it’s quite possible that council will soon see applications for other dispensaries in the near future.
Sgt. Vatamaniuck suggested council approach such applications just as the did the first one.
“You’ve done a good job, I think, of assessing the character of those bringing forward the application and determining if they truly have the community’s best interest at heart,” he said.
The discussion soon veered into a general conversation about recreational cannabis legalization at the national level, with councillors asking the police commander’s opinion on the topic.
“It’s quite ambiguous right now. It’s still in development,” said Sgt. Vatamaniuck. “But even so, I don’t think you’ll find a police force in Canada that doesn’t think it’s happening a bit too quickly, especially in regards to impaired driving.”
He went to detail that widely accepted scientific thresholds for tolerable legal limits for cannabis consumption (such as already exist for alcohol), and the technological means to test driving individuals suspected of exceeding those limits are still a long way from being developed.
“This probably is going to be wrapped up in case law for the next 10 years,” said Sgt. Vatamaniuk.
Invermere council members have in the past expressed a range of opinions on the topic of recreational marijuana legalization, although are all in agreement when it comes to medical use, having unanimously granted Green Peak Medical a businesses licence last year.
Sgt. Vatamaniuck also called out for community help on cracking down on excessive speeders.
A member of the gallery at the meeting asked if the RCMP were doing anything about the extraordinary speed at which some people drive through Kootenay National Park, and in an echo of his response to the fentanyl question, the police commander replied that it is indeed a problem, but one that the RCMP are hard pressed to combat at all times, and that a bit of help from the community would go a long way.
“When I take that road (Highway 93 South) in my personal vehicle, I’m driving the speed limit and I get passed like I’m sitting in a parking lot,” he said. “If you see somebody speeding like that, get a license plate number if you can. If somebody’s in the passenger seat and has a phone, take a photo and then give me a statement. Then I can take action.”
Sgt. Vatamaniuck added that it is not the Columbia Valley RCMP that patrol that road, but instead the Cranbrook-based East Kootenay Traffic Services force.