COLUMN: Dealing with drug issues in Nelson

Police chief discusses marijuana, fentanyl

The woman waiting in the reception area of the Nelson Police Department spots Chief Constable Paul Burkart and calls his name.

“Hi Paul,” she says.

The chief smiles and leans out through the open door, asking, “What can I get for you?”

The woman tells him she needs some volunteer security clearance forms. Burkart speaks to an officer in the front dispatch area and asks him to assist the visitor.

This took all of about one minute, but the exchange is a microcosm of the job Burkart faces everyday.

As the top officer on an 18-member city-owned force he has to wear many hats.

“We do it all. We are Jacks of all trades. We have to be, ” said Burkart.

“Every officer, even the chief can end up going on any call. You have to be available.” And looking ahead to the rest of 2018, Burkart has to be ready for every challenge his department faces.

It’s safe to say drugs – hard and soft – will be on that list.

While the fentanyl opiod crisis is the dark cloud that worries him, Burkart is preparing for the changing marijuana landscape.

Recreational marijuana is on track to be legalized in Canada by July of this year. In a town with six medical marijuana dispensaries that have appeared in the past two years, it isn’t easy to predict how the issue will play out in Nelson.

“We are concerned when recreational marijuana does become legal because we want to see how it will be sold and to see if we will receive any additional money to offset the additional enforcement costs,” said Burkart.

While five of the ten Canadian provinces have released details on how marijuana will be sold, B.C. is still working on a regulatory framework for sales.

The province has announced the minimum age will be 19 and the wholesale distribution of recreational marijuana will be handled by the government’s Liquor Distribution Branch. Although the province indicated plans for a mix of private and public retail stores, it did not say whether or not liquor stores would be included.

Burkart doesn’t expect to see a big increase in the number of marijuana users in the Nelson area — a city known for decades as Canada’s pot capital.

“I don’t think we’ll see a 50 percent increase once it’s legalized, but I do know we have to be ready,” said Burkart.

“We are taking the appropriate steps for when recreational marijuana is legalized,” adding that three Nelson police officers already have Drug Recognition Expert status. By July, he hopes to have six more officers trained in DRE, which teaches an officer to identify motorists whose driving is impaired by drugs.

Nelson council has placed a moratorium on recreational marijuana dispensaries as the city prepares to develop regulations related to the sales, public consumption and personal cultivation of recreational marijuana. The city is collecting public feedback beween now and April and plans to have municipal cannabis regulations in place by the summer.

Burkart said police have been monitoring the six marijuana dispensaries in Nelson and he said officers found no evidence of illegal sales.

“We do check regularly, but everything has been legal,” he said.

Burkart said he is concerned about how young people will react once marijuana is legalized, adding the department’s DARE program will play an even more important role.

While two Nelson officers are instructors with the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program in Nelson schools, it appears a third police officer involved in DARE — an RCMP member — is going to be reassigned.

The chief says the benefits of the program are vital.

“We see it as an important program for delivering the message about choice regarding drug and alcohol use and other risky behaviour,” said Burkart.

“It really has a great secondary effect of having our members out in the community interacting with our youth, building a rapport.”

While marijuana will create many challenges in 2018, Burkart is no less concerned about fentanyl.

There were at least 10 fentanyl deaths in the Kootenay Boundary region last year, up from just four in 2016.

Although there haven’t been any reported deaths locally this year, opioids are still a problem.

“It’s a concern for me. Only bad things happen with fentanyl,” said Burkart.

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