Alberta's top court sets 9-year starting point sentence for 'wholesale' trafficking of fentanyl

A unanimous ruling from the Court of Appeal of Alberta has set a new starting point of nine years for drug dealers convicted of trafficking fentanyl at "a wholesale level."

The judgment, issued Thursday, dealt with the case of a Fort McMurray drug dealer. The appeal court judges increased his original sentence after the Crown appealed it.

In its decision, the appeal court says fentanyl trafficking "has created a crisis in Alberta as in the rest of the country" and that the courts must impose sentences "that will alter the cost-benefit math performed by high-level fentanyl traffickers."

The decision defines a wholesale operation as one that traffics large amounts of one or more drugs, or that distributes drugs on a large scale, possibly for resale.

"To provide a clear statement of the gravity of wholesale fentanyl trafficking and to allow for a transparent sentencing framework, it is appropriate to establish a starting point," Justice Jolaine Antonio wrote in the decision. The other four judges on the panel concurred with Antonio.

Based on legal precedents, the starting point should be nine years, Antonio wrote.

'Sophisticated' trafficking operation

The decision dealt with the case of Patrick Felix, who directed a sophisticated trafficking operation in the northern Alberta city.

Felix obtained drugs and stored them at a stash location. "Runners" took orders for drugs, got them from the stash location and completed the deals. "Food bosses" managed the runners, collecting money from the sales and giving it to Felix.

Felix sold drugs to an undercover police officer on six separate occasions in 2015. According to the appeal court judgment, he provided 2,388 fentanyl pills and 2.5 kilograms of cocaine for an agreed total price of $173,400. At the time, fentanyl was selling at street level in Fort McMurray for $45 to $80 per tablet.

At trial, Felix pleaded guilty to four counts of trafficking in fentanyl and cocaine. A lower-court judge sentenced him to seven years for each count of fentanyl trafficking and four years for each count of cocaine trafficking, all to be served concurrently.

The Crown appealed the sentence, asking the appeal court to establish a starting point for wholesale trafficking in the potent opioid. 

The Crown had also alleged the trial judge had made "case-specific errors that affected the fitness of the sentence imposed."

Trafficking fentanyl carries a maximum penalty of life in prison but in some circumstances the minimum penalty had been one or two years, the appeal court said in its ruling.

The appeal court increased Felix's sentence to 10 years  on each of the fentanyl counts and six years on each of the cocaine counts, all to be served concurrently.

Antonio wrote that the original sentence handed to Felix was "demonstrably unfit," in part because the sentencing judge failed to adequately distinguish commercial trafficking from wholesale trafficking, and failed to properly account for Felix's role in the organization.

"Mr. Felix's role was at the top of his organization, which is a weighty aggravating factor," Antonio wrote.

"He energetically ran a business that was structured to maximize profit while minimizing the chance of criminal consequences to himself. He was responsible for pouring poison into his own community and potentially others, jeopardizing the health and lives of untold numbers of end users."

Edmonton drug dealer's sentence also appealed

At the same time the appeal court panel dealt with the Felix case, it considered an appeal in a similar case involving an Edmonton drug dealer.

Cameron O'Lynn Parranto pleaded guilty to possession for the purpose of trafficking in fentanyl and other drugs on Sept. 28, 2018, for two sets of offences starting in March 2016.

Police found 27.8 grams of fentanyl, 182.5 grams of methamphetamine, 82.6 grams of cocaine, 396 morphine pills, and 168 oxycodone pills after a search warrant was executed at Parranto's Edmonton home. They also found $55,575 in cash, a loaded handgun with the serial number removed, ammunition, police and sheriff badges, body armour, a dozen cell phones, scales, and a cash counter. 

After being released, Parranto was arrested three months after the first set of charges with an even greater quantity of fentanyl, as well as methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, oxycodone and date rape drug GHB. 

On the same day Parranto pleaded guilty to both sets of offences, he was handed an 11-year sentence: five years for all counts related to the March 2016 offences and six years for all counts related to the October 2016 offences. 

Because the Crown only asked for a three-year increase to a total sentence of 14 years, the court of appeal only increased the sentence on each of Parranto's two fentanyl counts to seven years, despite the nine-year starting point set in the Felix ruling.