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Seeing fire trucks and police officers in protective suits on a quiet residential street is a big surprise for homeowners. Unfortunately, for ALERT investigators, such precautions are becoming more and more routine as fentanyl processing labs continue to encroach on residential neighbourhoods.
In August 2018, ALERT’s Edmonton organized crime team seized more than $1 million in drugs as they shut down a lab operating in a garage in the Silverberry neighbourhood, where it’s alleged fentanyl was being processed to look like heroin. And in January 2019, ALERT investigators in Calgary dismantled a garage lab in the Forest Lawn neighbourhood where fentanyl was being pressed into pills.
“It wasn’t a huge surprise,” said Staff Sgt. Carson Creaser, ALERT Edmonton. “A lot of our illicit drug targets go to places where they can hide in plain sight, and residential neighbourhoods provide a lot of anonymity. There are plenty of houses for rent, and landlords often require little backstory, or backstopping of a story.”
“I think what they look for is somewhere they can have a property where they trust the ownership, whether it’s their own or it’s rented,” added Staff Sgt. Shawn Wallace, ALERT Calgary. “They’re looking for the safety and security of their illegal operation.”
While these criminals may be looking for safety and security, their labs put the rest of the neighbourhood at risk. Not only are there the dangers of violence that accompany most drug operations, but there is also the chance that fine fentanyl powders could become airborne.
“Any time you’re starting to work with precursors, when you’re looking at manufacturing or synthesizing drugs, looking at the combination of any of the filler materials, you can have aerosolized powders or some splash – you’re looking at any sort of contamination or absorption as a danger to any of the subjects who are knowingly or unknowingly associated to the drug lab,” Wallace said.
That’s why ALERT investigators work closely with clandestine lab teams operated by municipal police forces or the RCMP to carefully plan out and execute search warrants.
In Edmonton, the processing of fentanyl to be sold as heroin posed an additional danger to the community, specifically to drug users. “Your average heroin user will understand their tolerances and have some experience with it,” Creaser said. “When you have fentanyl, because of the mixing procedure, it’s like Russian roulette. You don’t know how much each dose really contains.”
Fentanyl labs may have fewer giveaways than other drug operations, like the stains and seepage from a large-scale cannabis grow-op, so Wallace says the best way to stay safe is to know your neighbours. “You live in a community, so know what people do and be social,” he said.
In the Edmonton case, the home was rented, and the homeowners will have to pay for remediation out of their own pockets, though they may be able to recoup some costs through civil court.
“Get multiple references, job histories, multiple pieces of government-issued ID,” Creaser advised landlords. “These are the things people can do to protect themselves. Just do everything possible to verify the person is who they say they are, that the work they say they do is actually legitimate.”
Neither officer expects criminals to pack up and move out any time soon.
“It’s been uncommon up until now – in my 22 years in policing, I’ve only witnessed four true pill presses – but I can see that may increase over time,” Wallace said.
“Criminals, drug dealers and drug wholesalers will continue to look for the easiest, safest places to base their operations out of,” added Creaser. “And unfortunately for our communities, often where people can disappear in plain sight is residential neighbourhoods.”