British Columbia THE FENTANYL FIX

Could blocking illegal fentanyl from China solve the B.C. opioid crisis?

UN specialist on synthetic drugs says past diplomatic efforts were useful, but current crisis is more complex

Maryse Zeidler - CBC News

February 03, 2017

(CBC)

It weighed only 1.45 kilograms, but the international parcel destined for Victoria could have killed 725,000 people.

The package contained the potent street drug fentanyl and it was just one of many similar shipments intercepted by police across Canada.

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Authorities said it came from China, a country labelled by experts worldwide as the leading culprit in fentanyl manufacturing and export. 

"There have been [federal] efforts opened up with China as a source country to deal with fentanyl," said Clayton Pecknold, B.C. director of police services ,

"I'd like to see continued diplomatic efforts, frankly, to support our efforts here in B.C. I'm hoping that will result in some reduction in the supply."

So could curbing illegal exports of synthetic opioids solve the fentanyl crisis in British Columbia? 

Click to show more
China is the main source of fentanyl in Canada. In CBC's Fentanyl Fix series, we look at ideas of how to cut off the supply.  3:00

Why China is in the lead

But first, let's take a quick look at why China is ground zero for fentanyl exports. 

Nicholas Li, assistant professor of economics at the University of Toronto, says there are three contributing factors.

The first is that China already supplies legal sources of fentanyl to countries like Canada — although it only supplies about one per cent of Canada's $1.4 billion pharmaceutical imports.

What's more likely the issue, according to Li, is the fragmented structure of China's pharmaceutical market, which is made up of thousands of small companies.

Kelowna RCMP seized two pill presses believed to be used for making fentanyl tablets during a recent drug bust. Critics say the availability of pill presses from suppliers in China has contributed to the fentanyl crisis. (Calgary Police Service)

"These Chinese pharmaceutical companies are not necessarily innovative world leaders, they're just producing generic or other drugs at lower costs," Li said.

The competition for scarce profits can encourage companies to sell their otherwise legal products on the black market, or turn a blind eye to middlemen who do it for them.

The third factor is Canada's economic and social ties with China, which creates ample opportunities for small packages to get smuggled into country through shipping routes or via the thousands of visitors to B.C. each year. 

Past successes

Past international efforts to control fentanyl abuse have been successful. 

Martin Raithelhuber, illicit synthetic drug expert with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, says this isn't the first fentanyl crisis North America has seen. 

Fentanyl first hit the streets in the 70s, shortly after it became a legal substance for pain treatment. 

Back then, international agreements were developed to define and trade fentanyl and its derivatives strictly as medical substances, which did quell the crisis at the time. 

But Raithelhuber says today the problem is more complex.

Fentanyl analogs — substances with a similar chemical structure — have now taken hold of the illicit drug market as well.

Police say this drug lab in Burnaby, B.C., was a packaging and processing lab where fentanyl was cut with other street drugs. (Delta Police)

"Today I think we're facing a greater challenge," Raithelhuber said.

"It's more difficult to place them under controls because of the sheer number and also because of the supply mechanisms that we have nowadays."

New supply routes increasingly involve the ease and accessibility of the internet, where small but deadly amounts of fentanyl are only a few clicks away.  

Still, Raithelhuber says international controls, bilateral agreements, and industry regulations are an important part of any efforts to curb illicit drug abuse. 

Supply and demand

But health professionals say the problem isn't one of supply so much as one of demand fuelled by a lack of treatment options. 

According to a 2013 report from UBC's Urban Health Research Institute, reducing illicit drug supply through law enforcement doesn't affect drug use levels — but harm reduction does. 

Research shows that health interventions like methadone programs, safe drug use sites and drug addiction treatment contributed to fewer people using injection drugs despite a steady supply.

Health experts say supervised drug use sites like Insite, on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, are key to reducing demand for opioids like fentanyl. (Radio-Canada)

"The best strategy is to expand evidence-based addiction treatments to reduce demand for drugs and reduce the size of the drug market," wrote Dr. Evan Wood, the report's co-author..

It's a message even law enforcement officials, including B.C. director of police services Clayton Pecknold, seem to agree with. 

"We're not going to solve this crisis by arresting our way out of it or seizing at the border," Pecknold said. 

"It's one component ... but the broader response is a health response, an education response and a coordinated response at all levels of government."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Maryse Zeidler
@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.

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