Spend enough time in a courtroom and you’ll soon be able to spot signs, even subtle ones, of a city gripped by methamphetamine.

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This article was published 17/12/2018 (1258 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Spend enough time in a courtroom and you’ll soon be able to spot signs, even subtle ones, of a city gripped by methamphetamine.

The random, extreme violence fuelled by the drug jumps off the pages of court dockets.

Look deeper still, and meth seeps through in ways that may not be obvious except to those with direct connections to each case.

Friesen links pot, meth crisis

Manitoba’s health minister believes there may be a direct link between the legalization of cannabis and the proliferation of meth in Manitoba.

Manitoba’s health minister believes there may be a direct link between the legalization of cannabis and the proliferation of meth in Manitoba.

“I think we are being naive in Manitoba if we are not connecting in any way the sudden and seemingly inexplicable rise of meth in our communities and the legalization of cannabis,” Cameron Friesen said during an interview last week.

“It was clear from my earliest discussions with the federal government when they said we were doing this thing called ‘cannabis legalization’ it seemed naive, the explanations given. The rationale was that we would drive the black market out of the drug business.

“The black market is not without creativity, not without innovation. They will look for new markets if we blockade conventional markets. Cannabis was a conventional market for the black market.”

Friesen said he’s heard anecdotally from various sources — in Winnipeg, across Canada and in the U.S. — that dealers are shifting toward selling harder drugs such as meth, which “may be an unintended consequence of the federal legalization of cannabis.”

“Look, (meth) is here and we will deal with it and we must deal with it. But in my conversations with the federal government, I will continue to underscore we’re seeing this now and it seems hopelessly naive to believe that this is coincidental,” he said.

The health minister’s comments drew a raised eyebrow from Daphne Penrose, Manitoba’s advocate for children and youth, who said she’s noticed a spike in meth usage among youths since as early as June 2017. Cannabis was legalized two months ago.

“This is not a cannabis crisis,” she said in an interview after the release of her latest child death report, In Need of Protection: Angel’s Story, which described the struggles of a teen girl who used drugs as a coping mechanism.

She pointed to the trauma that underlies many peoples’ addictions as the real point of concern. 

“The various crises in Manitoba which are sometimes called a ‘meth crisis’ or a ‘mental-health crisis’ or a ‘housing crisis’ or a ‘domestic-violence crisis’ are all rooted in the trauma crisis that is being experienced by countless Manitobans,” Penrose wrote in her report.

“If the province doesn’t respond to the requirement for mental-health supports, we will see this exacerbate, as we have over the last many, many years as supports haven’t been provided,” she said. 

Mayor Brian Bowman also mentioned a possible tie between meth consumption and cannabis legalization in his address to aparliamentary committee hearing in Ottawa last week.

He noted that two months into legalization, “the concern is whether or not organized crime is increasingly shifting their energies to meth.” 

“I don’t have any stats to back that concern; I just raise it as something we’ll be watching,” Bowman said.

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It’s often present in the absence of any criminal record or any memory of a sudden attack; in no-contact orders between family members; in seizures of homemade weapons and bicycle parts from backpacks; in guilty pleas for broken windows and stolen mail; in a missing Crown witness or a statement from a sexual exploitation victim; from within the prisoner’s box in a sombre pledge to change; in the hopeful face of an offender already on the road to recovery.

As the last stop for too many addicts, Manitoba courts are grappling with the ripple effects of a drug that was rarely mentioned in criminal cases a decade ago. And despite the lack of treatment options, it’s falling to judges to decide how to deal with people who wouldn’t be in jail except for their meth addiction.

"It almost seems like every day when you go into court, if you’re doing sentencings, particularly, someone’s appearing in front of you and the explanation is their addiction to meth," says Manitoba provincial court Judge Ray Wyant.

"You can almost predict when it’s going to come up, based on the nature of the offence and the background of the offender, before it’s even raised by defence counsel. It’s that pervasive."

Meth’s effect on the justice system is Part 2 in a series examining the drug’s hold on the province.

With 20 years of experience as a judge, Wyant sees meth use as an epidemic that cuts a "wide swath" across all demographics: destroying families, taxing the courts and further straining mental-health services.

"It’s one of the most dangerous things that I’ve ever seen in my years in the criminal justice system, honestly," he says.

He’s not alone. Meth has been blamed for a serious spike in violent crime and has prompted Winnipeg’s mayor and police chief to call on the federal government to address the crisis.

Meth cases prosecuted in Manitoba

Possession

Possession for

purpose of trafficking

487

__undefined__

240

2018

(to Dec. 13)

2000

Source: Public Prosecution Service of Canada

Possession

Possession for purpose

of trafficking

487

Meth cases prosecuted

in Manitoba

Source: Public Prosecution Service of Canada

__undefined__

240

2018

(to Dec. 13)

2000

487

Possession

Possession for purpose of trafficking

Meth cases prosecuted

in Manitoba

Source: Public Prosecution Service of Canada

240

2000

2018

(to Dec. 13)

In July, Winnipeg Police Service Chief Danny Smyth and Mayor Brian Bowman held a joint news conference in which they painted a vivid picture of the meth crisis.

The police service had released its 2017 annual crime stats report. It showed that violent, property and drug crimes were spiking because meth was cheap and readily consumed. The report also showed police resources were increasingly taxed by social welfare calls.

"This is a community in crisis... In the last couple of years, meth use has increased dramatically here in Winnipeg, and really across Manitoba," Smyth said in July.

Meanwhile, strengthening services for crystal meth addiction is an official responsibility of the provincial justice minister, as outlined in the mandate letter Premier Brian Pallister signed in October. 

Meth-related cases have spiked exponentially: there’s been an 18,525 per cent increase over nearly 20 years. Lawyers are tasked with trying to get instructions from incoherent clients who may be in the midst of a meth-induced psychosis. Judges are trying to figure out creative ways to sentence meth-addicted offenders for whom long-term treatment is scarce, knowing they will likely end up in court again without proper help, and knowing that no sentence can erase victims’ pain. Some addicts get clean while in jail, only to use drugs again after they’re released because they have no support.

Only four meth-related drug cases were prosecuted in Manitoba in 2000, according to data from the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, which is responsible for handling federal charges, including drug trafficking, possession, importing and production. That number started to spike in 2014 and has been on the rise ever since. In 2017, there were 747 meth-related prosecutions, most for possession, and as of Dec. 13, 2018, there had been 745.  

Those statistics don’t include other cases that may be rooted in meth use, such as property crime, assaults, robberies or domestic disputes. Such crimes are often provoked by meth, either because of the user’s need to feed their habit or the paranoia and presence of "shadow people" hallucinations they experience when they’re using it.

"I look beyond the drug files. Yes, I have some clients that possess or sell meth, but I look at the guys who do armed robberies, who do home invasions, who do break-and-enters, who do thefts. The common thread through those crimes is crystal methamphetamine," says Winnipeg defence lawyer Mike Cook.

But neither the federal prosecutions office in Manitoba nor the provincial Crown attorneys office has tracked the effect of meth on prosecutors’ workloads.

Acting chief federal prosecutor Michael Foote suggested meth has "displaced" other drugs as crack cocaine users turn to a cheaper, readily accessible alternative.

"You’re seeing other crimes increase as a result of meth use, but our workload itself hasn’t necessarily increased as dramatically as you might think," he said. 

In Winnipeg’s drug treatment court, about half of the participant applications are for people who are addicted to meth. There are 16 people in the program. Meth users take longer to complete it, Manitoba Justice said in a statement, because "the treatment for these individuals does require a more significant support system."

Spikes in drug-fuelled crime aren’t new. Alcohol-related cases are still prevalent, and in the 1980s, Manitoba’s justice system saw the rise of the "poor man’s heroin", a prescription painkiller/stimulant combo known as Ts and Rs – Talwin and Ritalin. But several defence lawyers told the Free Press meth is having a much more widespread effect on the courts.

"Unlike what we used to see, for example with Ts and Rs for the longest time," says Winnipeg defence lawyer Saul Simmonds, "meth is everywhere and it’s across virtually every financial spectrum, educational spectrum. We’re seeing people with significant education using it, and because of the fact that it is so highly addictive, it’s beyond comprehension."

An influx of people taken into custody while high on meth has introduced the justice system to meth-induced psychosis, with no immediate fix in sight.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Winnipeg defence lawyer Saul Simmonds said meth is touching every aspect of society.</p>

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Winnipeg defence lawyer Saul Simmonds said meth is touching every aspect of society.

"I’m seeing more and more individuals coming into the (Winnipeg) Remand Centre who are not able to instruct counsel due to them being in a state of psychosis," says defence lawyer Theodore Mariash.

It’s become difficult to tell whether clients have serious mental illnesses in addition to the effects of the meth.

"That, in and of itself, is creating delay because you can’t get instructions from your client — or they’re paranoid, they’re sitting in their jail cell refusing to come out and the matter just keeps getting remanded longer and longer, even if it’s a relatively minor offence where they either get bail or time served or a non-jail sentence," he said, estimating one-third to half of his cases are related to meth use.

Amid pressure to cut down on court delays, courts are working to deal with the simplest cases quickly, and meth-related property crime often falls into that category, even though, lawyers say, it may be a symptom of a much larger problem and can contribute to a revolving cycle in criminal courts.

"I don’t think that the justice system has responded to it in a way that’s different than how you would expect," says Winnipeg defence lawyer Chris Gamby. "There have been some efforts, I think, to reduce the strain of some of the petty property crime… call it what it is and give that guy an opportunity to plead guilty and deal with his case expediently so that we don’t have to clog up courts with this. There’s an effort to make those changes."

There are success stories: those who hit rock bottom changed their lives and never returned to court. But it’s more common for lawyers to see their clients repeat a pattern: they’re charged for strange, often inexplicable offences, they’re taken into custody skinny and sleepless, spend time in jail and emerge heavier, healthier and hopeful, only to tread across whatever bridges they haven’t burned – often back to their old friends, the meth users.

"It’s really hard for them. They keep getting their hopes up and then their hopes get dashed," Gamby says.

"That, to me, is the scary part about it — you see people whose lives are just… they’re just in a spin cycle and they can’t get out of it."

From the bench, Judge Wyant sees no easy solution.

Courts have long struggled with a lack of treatment options, mental-health resources and community programs that can support people after they’re released. He suggests the availability of meth could be curtailed with more police resources, but he says education needs to start early and focus on helping young people before they find themselves in the cycle of addiction.

"We’re the criminal justice system. We’re kind of the end of the line. It’s not like you can wave a magic wand and just put everyone back in the position they were in before the crime was committed. It’s not as if you possess the resources to be able to say, ‘OK, we’re doing A, B, C, D. In many cases, because of the nature of the offences, you have to send someone to jail… even if jail isn’t going to do them any good. There are many reasons why you need to do that, depending on the nature of the offence," Wyant says.

"But it’s kind of frustrating to know that many times there aren’t the programs or the support necessary for people who do need and want to get help, to get them in a timely fashion. You often get that feeling that, sadly, they’re going to be back. Some people are going to be back because of the nature of the addiction, either because they’re unwilling or they’re incapable of getting off the drug and you don’t have the supports necessary to help them."

katie.may@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @thatkatiemay

Katie May

Katie May
Reporter

Katie May is a general-assignment reporter for the Free Press.