When the robber dressed up as a clown entered the pharmacy, the owner, Waseem Shaheen, filled the white garbage bags with the fentanyl patches he was asked for at knifepoint. Shaheen dropped to his knees hoping he would come out alive from the incident.
“I got robbed,” Shaheen exclaimed to the 911 operator. “What was taken?” the operator asked. “Everything,” replied the distressed Pharmacist. But there was a lot more to this story than met the eye…
While most pharmacists are happy to make an average living dispensing medication to patients, some have bigger eyes than others. Pharmacist Waseem Shaheen is one of the “others” as he was just convicted of trafficking 5,000 fentanyl patches illegally, at a huge profit, and covering up for his misdemeanors by staging an armed robbery.
However, Shaheen isn’t the only Canadian pharmacist responsible for the massive amount of deadly opioids on the streets. Disciplinary records from the Ontario College of Pharmacists between 2013 and 2017, found that at least 241 pharmacists had trafficked drugs and defrauded the provincial drug benefit plan to the tune of millions of dollars. Police knew something needed to be done to curtail this epidemic.
While the figures only represent a tiny 1.5 percent of the 16,000 pharmacists in Canada, the drugs they illegally sell which make their way to the streets have caused damage. That damage is considered to be disproportionate considering all the hard drugs these people have allowed onto the streets. And while most pharmacists would never dream of doing such a thing, Shaheen is one pharmacist who could and did.
As Dr. David Juurlink, professor of pharmacology at the University of Toronto explained according to The Star, “Most pharmacists are tremendous people. They’re knowledgeable, they’re extremely helpful, and they are an important part of the health-care team. The very small number of pharmacists, or doctors for that matter, who engage in this sort of behavior, cause a lot of harm.”
Millions of Doses
Between the years 2013-2017, roughly 3.5 million doses of prescription drugs went missing from pharmacies in Ontario according to the data. And the issue has grown exponentially as in 2013 roughly 2,200 reports of missing drugs were filed, while that number rose to 30,000 in 2017. To make matter worse, almost all of the missing drugs were opioids.
Something fishy has clearly been going on. For example, huge losses of hydromorphone, an opioid much more potent than morphine, have been noted, while at least three-quarters of the missing drugs were put down as being “unexplained” by pharmacists. The issue is such a serious one that even the Canadian Health ministry spoke out about it.
When asked for comment on the damning statistics, a spokesperson for Health Minister Christine Elliott said: “Our government takes patient safety very seriously. The inappropriate use, abuse, and diversion of prescription narcotics and controlled substances are very serious public health concerns,” the statement read. “Minister Elliott will continue to work with partners to discuss harm reduction strategies and ensure those struggling with addiction get the help they need,” said Hayley Chazan.
While many opioids on the streets of Canada are illegally imported. From morphine and hydromorphone to oxycodone and fentanyl, many reach the streets from less than scrupulous pharmacists like Shaheen. Worryingly, opioid-related deaths in Ontario have almost doubled in the last five years. What’s worse, 70 percent of those deaths are attributed to fentanyl, the most sought-after opioid on the streets.
As Dr. Juurlink explained, “It’s quite often the case that people who end up with opioid addiction, who are at a very high risk of death, began with experimentation on a pill that was prescribed to someone else,” he said. “Aside from being criminal and deeply unethical, a pharmacist who introduces large amounts of opioids into society – or any other drug prone to abuse – is perpetuating harm in a very real way.”
In a way, Shaheen was forced to frame the robbery after his assistant pharmacist working in-store reported that large numbers of fentanyl patches were missing from stock. At the point, Shaheen moved to cover his tracks, and that’s when the robbery happened. As Judge Robert Wadden, who tried Shaheen explained.
Judge Wadden spoke to reporters about Shaheen’s actions: “The robbery accomplished exactly what Mr. Shaheen had sought. It allowed him to falsely claim that a large amount of fentanyl had been stolen, an amount that he knew had not been taken,” he said. “As a trained professional, he would have been aware of the debilitating and deadly effects of this drug in the hands of addicts. Yet he conducted a drug trafficking scheme worth over a million dollars, profiting off the misery of others.”
Shaheen enlisted the help of one of the addicts he had been selling drugs illegally to, a man called Mehdi Rostaee. He asked the man for his help and told him he could have anything in the safe if he robbed the store when Shaheen was present. Shaheen even put on a good act as attending officers described him as “scared” and “very stressed” when they attended the robbery.
Shaheen’s acting skills were on form that night, as Det. Const. Guy Seguin explained. “He was very nervous, in fear still when I met him,” he said. “To the point where I reached out to our victim crisis unit to call him for a followup, which I never did before in any other pharmacy robbery.” Shaheen managed to pull the wool over Seguin’s eyes, but that strategy didn’t wash in court.
Sadly, Shaheen isn’t the only crooked pharmacist in Canada. Just this summer, Michael Yamasaki pleaded guilty to 11 charges related to orchestrating a robbery at his pharmacy in Georgina. He was caught by some good old fashioned police work after the stash of drugs was found in a storage space after it was shown that it hadn’t been stolen. This and numerous other cases mean that Canada has a serious problem when it comes to prescription drugs being sold illegally.
As is so often the case with matters such as these, the system itself is most likely the main culprit here. Drug wholesalers in Canada are not required to report suspiciously large orders of opioids by pharmacies. Even though the drugs are tracked, not a single drug-dealing pharmacist has been caught to date. As the system doesn’t update information in real time, there is a huge margin for error.
To Dr. Juurlink, the system is broken and needs to be overhauled. “It’s kind of crazy in 2018 that a child can go online and play a video game in real time with somebody thousands of miles away, but a pharmacist in downtown Toronto doesn’t have real-time access to all of the prescription information for the patient in front of him or her from the pharmacy across the street,” he said.
Even though the robust Narcotics Safety and Awareness Act in Canada hands down fines of $50,000 to pharmacists for malpractice, they can slap a $200,000 fine on pharmacists that input “false or misleading information.” However, as mentioned, not a single charge has been brought to date, according to a Health Ministry spokesperson. Nevertheless, Shaheen is one pharmacist who will probably never practice again.
As a result of his actions, being found guilty of the numerous charges against him, Shaheen was sentenced by the judge to 14 years in prison. He was also ordered to pay $36,000 in restitution for the fraud he committed. This is the most severe sentence handed down to date for fentanyl crimes in Canada.
While Federal prosecutors Kristen Mohr and Melody Foerster asked for a 15-year sentence, Judge Wadden said that he was outraged by the actions of a man who should have known better. He explained that Shaheen chose to traffic dangerous drugs for profit and that he was, “at the forefront of the opioid crisis that is ravaging our cities.”
Staff Sgt. Michael Haarbosch of the Ottawa police robbery unit said that the conviction against Shaheen sent out a strong message to other pharmacists in the country. “I’m hopeful this sentence is a signal of just how seriously these types of crimes will be dealt with in our community,” Haarbosch said. Moving forward, he hopes that pharmacists will be deterred by the serious prison sentence they could face for distributing drugs illegally.