Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government is failing to tackle the issue of drug dealing pharmacists, critics say, amid an opioid crisis that’s killing Canadians in record numbers.
The allegations follow a Global News/Toronto Star investigation that revealed how pharmacists flooded Ontario’s streets with massive quantities of deadly narcotics.
“The criminal activity and that aspect of it is a federal responsibility,” said Ontario’s Health Minister Christine Elliott when asked about the government’s Narcotics Monitoring System (NMS) and whether it’s properly catching drug-dealing pharmacists. The NMS tracks all opioids which are dispensed in Ontario and was created by the Liberal government in 2012.
Richard Elliott, a human rights advocate with the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, said it’s an “abdication of responsibility” for the health minister not to take action to address health professionals who are illegally diverting opioids.
WATCH: Exposing the systems that failed to catch drug-dealing pharmacists
“This ought to be of concern to a health minister, I would think, and if you’re not willing to do something about it then I think you’re not your job,” Elliott said.
“We already have a provincial government that has shown complete and utter recklessness – I would actually say criminal negligence – in its approach to dealing with harm reduction services,” Elliott said. “It’s not surprising to me that they are also not wanting to address this part of the problem.”
The investigation analyzed disciplinary records from the Ontario College of Pharmacists between 2013 and 2017. Through that investigation, 241 pharmacists were found who diverted huge amounts of prescription opioids into communities across the province and defrauded the province’s drug benefit plan to the tune of millions of dollars, along with other crimes.
In several cases, pharmacists concocted elaborate methods to conceal their trafficking, including staging robberies at their own stores or using the names of dead people to fake prescriptions.
The reporting also showed that while Ontario has tracking systems to monitor the prescribing and dispensing of opioids, they haven’t led to a single arrest. Instead, drug dealing pharmacists are often only caught by chance.
Ontario introduced the Narcotics Monitoring System (NMS) in 2012 to track all narcotics dispensed at pharmacies to “identify and reduce the abuse, misuse and diversion of monitored drugs.”
“The collected data will be reviewed and analyzed by the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care for a variety of purposes including … reporting possible criminal conduct to law enforcement agencies,” its handbook states.
Yet Ontario’s Health Minister Christine Elliott said the NMS was never meant to track criminals.
“The system we have set up in Ontario was never meant to deal with the use and distribution and disabuse of medications — that’s a federal responsibility,” Elliott said. “What we are taking a look at is just making sure we take a look at prescribing and how it goes out. The Ontario College of Pharmacists is also responsible for dealing with people — with pharmacists — who are dealing inappropriately in narcotics.”
Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath called the health minister’s comments “unacceptable.”
“When the people who are dying on our streets are Ontarians, people who are losing their lives and who are losing their futures are Ontarians, suggesting that this is not her responsibility, even though it’s clear in the legislation, it sends a very, very bad sign that this government is not ready to step up to the plate,” Horwath said.
“It’s completely unacceptable and we have an opportunity to turn this around, but only if the minister does what needs to be done to take action, as opposed to sweeping her job, her responsibility to do her job under a carpet,” Horwath added.
Data from the NMS, obtained by Global News via a freedom of information request, shows that a handful of pharmacists across the province are dispensing huge quantities of powerful opioids.
Last year, 17 pharmacists dispensed more than 10,000 maximum strength oxycodone pills. Five pharmacists dispensed over 4,000 hydromorphone tablets and three dispensed well over a thousand maximum strength fentanyl patches each.
There is no indication who those high-dispensing pharmacists are and whether their conduct is legitimate.
WATCH: Police surveillance video captures drug dealing Ontario pharmacist
Health Canada said through its Community Pharmacy Inspection Program, the agency conducts inspections at pharmacies across the country to assess their compliance with the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and its Regulations.
“Inspectors evaluate record-keeping practices and security measures to ensure that all controlled substances are received, stored and dispensed in accordance with all applicable legislation,” said Health Canada spokesperson Eric Morrissette in an email. “In cases where a risk of diversion is detected or suspected, Health Canada takes compliance and enforcement actions such as referring the pharmacist to their respective provincial college, or the situation to law enforcement.”
However, only three per cent of pharmacies in Ontario were inspected in 2016/2017, according to a Health Canada report. And there is currently no requirement to report suspicious opioid deliveries to pharmacies.
The Ontario College of Pharmacists said in a statement that it relies on information from several sources to find pharmacy professionals who misuse narcotics, including the health ministry.
“Those who engage in unlawful conduct often put great effort into concealing their behaviour. That’s why the College relies on information reported to us from law enforcement, other regulatory agencies such as Health Canada, the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, health professionals and members of the public so that we can become aware of any unusual or concerning behaviour and subsequently act on, up to and including initiating an investigation,” the college said.
Meanwhile, the Global/Star investigation comes as opioid-related overdoses have surged in Canada, killing nearly 4,000 last year. In Ontario, opioid deaths have doubled in the last four years, rising from 639 in 2013 to 1,265 in 2017.
The reporting also showed that while a small number of the more than 16,000 pharmacists are engaged in illegally diverting opioids, those few can cause a huge amount of harm to the public.
In the last five years, nine pharmacists caught selling opioids were responsible for putting more than 8,000 fentanyl patches — 32,000 potentially lethal doses — onto the street.
One Ottawa pharmacist, Waseem Shaheen, staged an elaborate knifepoint robbery involving a man wearing a clown mask to cover up an illicit drug-dealing operation where Shaheen trafficked more than 5,000 fentanyl patches out of his store.
Elliott said there is “no question” this is a major public health concern and said the data under the NMS should be used to track criminals.
“If you’ve got a provincial government that’s got a bunch of data about pharmacists prescribing in ways that should raise a red flag, then the province should be acting on that information,” he said. “You can’t engage in this jurisdictional buck passing between two levels of government. It’s frankly a responsibility that both levels of government share and ought to be doing something about.”
Elliott also chastised the PC government for an “unnecessary” review of overdose prevention sites.
WATCH: Understanding the Opioid Crisis in Ontario
“It’s total lip-service for the health minister to say, ‘We care about the well-being of Ontarians’ including in the context of an ongoing overdose crisis if you’re not willing to fund lifesaving services,’” he said.
Horwath said it’s “shocking” that the Ontario government doesn’t see this as a priority, adding that the health minister needs to take action.
“When we know that there are systems in place that should have been catching these over prescribing pharmacists, to have a Minister simply say ‘that’s not my job’, it’s unbelievable, frankly,” she said. “It’s exactly her job and the job of the government to deal with this.”
*With files from the Toronto Star
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