A question that’s increasingly occupying Alberta’s justice system has made its way before the province’s Court of Appeal: How long should fentanyl traffickers spend in prison?
On Wednesday, a special panel of five Alberta Court of Appeal justices heard Crown appeals arguing that sentences handed out to a pair of fentanyl traffickers should be increased.
The appeal could result in the establishment of starting-point sentences for fentanyl trafficking — something that Alberta courts have not had as the province responds to the opioid overdose crisis.
The Crown argued that nine years in prison should be the starting point for someone convicted of wholesale fentanyl trafficking, but lawyers for the defence argued now is not the time to set such guidelines.
Starting-point sentences are punishment guidelines for specific crimes established by courts. They typically apply to someone who was found guilty after a trial, who does not have a prior criminal record.
Those sentences would increase or decrease based on aggravating or mitigating factors in each case.
In Alberta, some drug trafficking offences have established starting-point sentences, though sentencing judges must still consider the facts of each case individually.
Jonathan Martin, a lawyer for the federal Crown, said the drug that typically carries the longest starting-point sentence is heroin. In Alberta, heroin-trafficking offences typically net between five and 7.5 years depending on whether it’s a commercial or more sophisticated wholesale operation, he said.
The Crown argued the starting points for commercial and wholesale fentanyl-trafficking sentences should be six and nine years, respectively. Martin submitted an affidvait from a medical doctor which said fentanyl is 20 to 50 times more potent than the purest heroin.
“Fentanyl … is significantly more dangerous than heroin and as such, it requires a higher starting point than heroin,” he said.
Parranto was sentenced to 11 years in prison last year for his role in a fentanyl wholesale operation, with police seizing the equivalent of a half-million doses of fentanyl.
Investigators seized around $1 million worth of drugs and 3,000 fentanyl pills in the case of Felix, a wholesale trafficker in Fort McMurray who was sentenced to seven years in prison this March . Both men pleaded guilty.
The Crown argued Parranto’s and Felix’s sentences should be increased to 14 and 10 years, respectively, to better reflect the dangerousness of fentanyl and the impacts it has on the community. To argue that, they needed to establish a starting point.
The defence argued the current sentences should stand.
Paul Moreau, Parranto’s counsel, said he’s in favour of starting-point sentences as an idea.
One reason, highlighted in a court filing, is that starting points tend to minimize “unjustified” disparities in sentencing. Moreau said there are around 20 cases that set starting points for a variety of offences.
However, Moreau doesn’t think these are the right cases to establish such guidelines for fentanyl starting point.
“Fentanyl trafficking and the case law surrounding it is really in its infancy,” he said. “Before you set a starting point you want to have a good body of case law to look at. We just don’t have that yet.”
Moreau added that it’s “unclear” to what extent criminal fentanyl trafficking is responsible for the current overdose crisis, saying over-prescription by physicians plays a significant role.
He also told court it’s wrong to think that a starting point sentence is a “silver bullet” to address a public health crisis.
The defence also suggested setting a starting point for fentanyl raises questions about sentencing for more powerful fentanyl analogues, like carfentanil.
Around a dozen lawyers watched the proceedings from the public gallery.
The Alberta government’s most recent opioid report found 746 Albertans died of an accidental opioid overdose in 2018, the equivalent of two people a day.
The court reserved its decision for a later date.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019