Overdose Deaths.  More Gunfire.

By Roger Bill / August 11, 2023

There is no hiding from the statistics. There were 13 drug overdose deaths in St. John’s in all of 2022. There have been 11 so far this summer.  

Why? This picture may not tell you all you need to know, but it is a good start.


Opiates are one of humankind’s all time favorite drugs. Opium poppies were cultivated in 3400 B.C. They have been called the “joy plant.” In 330 B.C., Alexander the Great introduced it to Persia and India. More recently, in 1839, the joy plant triggered what became know as the first Opium War when the Chinese government tried to stop British merchants from trafficking in opium. So, the fact there is a demand for the joy drug in Newfoundland and Labrador in 2023 should be no surprise and neither is the fact that laws prohibiting its possession have proven to be ineffective.

What is new is that a synthetic joy drug is in the market. Fentanyl. It is described as being 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine.


Thirty milligrams of heroin can be fatal. Three milligrams of fentanyl can be fatal. It is powerfully addictive, easy to make, easy to transport, and easy to hide. It can also make for a deadly concoction when it finds its way into other drugs like cocaine.


What is also true is, like alcohol during prohibition and cannabis until recently, the fentanyl marketplace is unregulated. There is no quality control over the product. There are also no peaceful, third-party dispute settlement mechanisms when problems between vendors and buyers or among partners arise.

The result is if a retailer doesn’t pay a wholesaler, then the wholesaler has to enforce the contract and that is where guns come in. For example, on August 1, additional charges were laid against four men arrested in 2022 in what the police call Project Badminton. The police seized five kilograms of cocaine, 3,000 oxycodone pills cut with fentanyl, 320 oxycodone pills, 60 dilaudid pills, $26,000 in cash, 16 lbs of cannabis, and a loaded handgun. Note the loaded handgun.

Another example. The morning after the Regatta police responded to reports of gunshots in the area of Bulley Street in downtown St. John’s. In a media release the police said, “… it is not believed to be a random event. All subjects involved are believed to be known to one another.”  Translated it means the gunfire was probably the result of a dispute in the unregulated drug marketplace.


In the wake of the news of a 20-year-old man being found dead of an overdose in St. John’s and on the same day the additional charges in Operation Badminton were announced, PC Justice Critic Helen Conway Ottenheimer told NTV’s Rosie Mullaly, “There has to be a crackdown on illicit drugs we see coming into our province.” Some critics of this approach characterize it as waging an endless war with no possibility of victory. 

“Harm Reduction” is increasingly the preferred approach in Canada and Newfoundland. That was evident at this year’s Regatta where Eastern Health had a van where fentanyl test strips were being distributed along with naloxone kits for the emergency treatment of drug overdoses. One Eastern Health nurse was asked if safe injection sites were available in St. John’s. She said, “Not yet.”

British Columbia’s harm reduction strategy includes the provision of safe injection sites. The problem with assisting people in taking illicit drugs is obvious. The solution to this dilemma in Portugal has been to decriminalize the possession of those drugs. Some critics of this approach call it permanent surrender.

While thousands of people were enjoying the festivities at the Regatta, another mother was grieving over the loss of her son to a drug overdose. Another young guy, 21-year-old Robert Belbin, may have heard the crowds cheering on the rowers from his cell in Her Majesty’s Penitentiary as he awaits trial on weapons and murder charges. In another part of the province, far from the cheering crowds, another young guy, 20-year-old Brandon Chafe, also awaits trial on charges of weapons offences and attempted murder. No evidence has been presented in court that disputes in the unregulated drug marketplace played a role in the events that led to these young men’s arrests. But if such evidence was to emerge, would anyone be surprised? 

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