Danielle Smith’s rule has been characterized by a loose relationship with the truth: among the big fibs have been a great-grandfather who didn’t actually flee communism, claims that she would, did, and then didn’t interfere in the prosecution of Coutts blockaders, and a false claim of Cherokee heritage.
But the Premier isn’t the only one in the Premier’s office with a tendency to fabulize. Her chief of staff, Marshall Smith, is spinning a big one in an attempt to discredit British Columbia’s safe supply program. According to Marshall, the government of BC is flooding high schools and universities with duffel bags full of $1 morphine pills.
Police, government officials, and an expert with lived experience on the downtown east side all dispute Marshall Smith’s story, which he was spreading as recently as January.
“In my day when I was on the street a tab of morphine cost about $20 for one tablet. Today on the streets of Vancouver you can pick up a tab of morphine for $1. That’s how much of it is on the street. That’s how much flooding of the market they’ve done,” said Smith in an interview with conservative blogger Jen Gerson.
“They’ve put so much on the street that the cost of it has gone below what it cost them to dispense it: The dealers collect it up in duffel bags and just take it to a different jurisdiction and sell it and make 20X their profit.”
“They’ll take these pills to places like university campuses, high school campuses," said Smith.
Marshall Smith is an uncommonly high profile and extremely powerful political staffer (not many chiefs of staff get extended CBC writeups) and the man widely recognized as the architect of the “Alberta model” of addressing the drug poisoning crisis. This model is actively antagonistic towards harm reduction efforts like safe supply and instead advocates for addressing the drug poisoning crisis entirely through investing in moralistic, abstinence-based treatment.
B.C.’s safer supply program was introduced in 2020, and through it doctors and nurse-practitioners can now prescribe a wide range of pharmaceutical grade medications that are safer than illicit street drugs. The program recognizes that the street drug supply has become toxic in a way that it historically wasn’t, and the immediate need is to divert people away from the poisoned drugs.
Guy Felicella is a peer clinical advisor for the B.C. Centre on Substance Use, a provincial organization that is studying and working on the drug poisoning crisis, as well as someone with personal experience in drug addiction and recovery. “The amount of people who are accessing safer supply, unfortunately the numbers are very small,” said Felicella.
According to the government of B.C. there were 4,553 people receiving prescribed safer supply opioids in the month of November 2022. According to Felicella there are at least 55,000 people in B.C. with diagnosed opioid use disorder.
Felicella says that while there likely are people on the downtown eastside in Vancouver trading in prescribed drugs, including some safer supply drugs, that is nothing new. “His comments that they’re ending up at high schools and universities in duffel bags are highly unlikely,” said Felicella. “There’s been a major pill mill at the intersection of Carnegie and Hastings from long before government safe supply.”
There have been no media reports nor does the B.C. government say it has heard of any examples of duffel bags of $1 government morphine ending up at universities and high schools.
“The Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions is not aware of any cases of duffel bags of diverted safe supply drugs ending up at university campuses or high schools,” said a spokesperson with B.C.'s ministry of mental health and addictions.
Conor King, an inspector with the Victoria Police Department, and a twenty-four year veteran of drug enforcement, has not seen or heard of duffel bags of $1 government morphine flooding universities and high schools.
“We’re alive to the concern that safer supply drugs are being diverted and resold at a profit but I have not seen duffel bags being delivered to university campuses, certainly not in the Victoria area.”
The Vancouver Police Department and the RCMP’s lower mainland division did not respond to our requests for comment.
Smith’s story is risible on its face, Felicella says, given its absurd details. Morphine pills were certainly not $20 each on the street in the 2000s, for example.
“I sold pills down there for years. Morphine is going in the range of $2.50 to $5 a pill. The dilaudid is about $2 a pill. It was never $20 a pill like Marshall was saying,” said Felicella. “The number one pill is Tylenol 3 and Valium blues. Anyone hits that corner with those pills they go immediately. Those are the biggest sellers by far.”
“When Marshall comes to the downtown eastside, who does he come with? A camera crew. If he thinks he can make a difference down there, come down and start handing out coffee and sandwiches and start telling people about recovery. Instead he’s doing political grandstanding,” said Felicella.
Marshall Smith (right) with Aaron Gunn (left) in the downtown eastside of Vancouver, B.C. Screenshot from the Youtube documentary, Vancouver is Dying.
“Part of Marshall’s story is him talking about sleeping in doorways and maybe he’s forgotten about how hard it is to get out. He’s forgotten about the people on the street. I’m in the downtown eastside and I’m getting people into detox and treatment all the time. People call me from all over the country and I do my best to give people all the options. But the narrative becomes scary when the only option is shutting down harm reduction so that all you can get is treatment.”
Marshall Smith claims that his and the UCP’s campaign against harm reduction at least comes with a commitment to providing an alternative. But Smith admits in his interview with Gerson that there are only 1300 recovery beds in Alberta.
According to the BC government, there are 3260 publicly funded recovery beds across that province—more than two and a half times the number available under Smith’s ‘recovery-focused’ Alberta model.
Marshall Smith and the Premier’s office did not respond to our requests for comment.
We asked Jen Gerson if it was responsible for a journalist to give an uncritical platform to a highly placed government official to say such obviously untrue things. She says she’s working with B.C.’s ministry of mental health on a comparable Q&A interview and hopes to settle on a date in the near future. The two-part interview with Marshall Smith ran more than a month ago, on January 12 and 13.