British Columbia Premier Christy Clark is calling on the federal government to restrict access to pill presses, screen "all small packages" for fentanyl and pursue stiffer penalties for those caught importing or trafficking the synthetic opioid.
The province has also struck a joint task force, led by provincial health officer Perry Kendall and director of police services Clayton Pecknold, as part of its latest efforts to combat a steep surge in opioid-related overdose deaths.
"Drug overdoses are absolutely senseless deaths," said Ms. Clark, who was joined by Dr. Kendall and the provincial Health Minister at a Wednesday morning news conference. "Every one of them is a preventable tragedy that families feel in the worst possible way."
The number of such deaths in B.C. has soared in recent years, reaching 371 in just the first half of 2016 – a 74.2-per-cent increase from the same period last year. Illicit fentanyl, largely produced overseas and smuggled into Canada, has been detected in a growing percentage of these deaths every year, from 5 per cent in 2012 to about 60 per cent so far this year.
Health officials have feared that up to 800 British Columbians could die of overdoses by year's end. A Globe and Mail investigation found that fentanyl suppliers in China often guarantee shipment of the drug, noting that Canadian border guards cannot open packages weighing less than 30 grams without the consent of the recipient. Because fentanyl is so potent, only a small amount is needed to turn a large profit.
Asked about the feasibility of "all small packages," Health Minister Terry Lake said he was confident federal officials have the ability and resources to respond to the situation as the emergency that it is.
"If this was SARS, or Ebola, Health Canada and border security and immigration would all be focused on this as a health issue that is essentially like a pandemic," he said. "I think when we put our minds to it, we can do those things, even though they appear to be difficult."
Once in Canada, fentanyl powder is often packed into pills – sometimes made to look like oxycodone or ecstasy – using pill presses that are easy to purchase and legal to own.
Police in B.C. have expressed frustration at the ease of access to such equipment.
"If you can prove that somebody has knowledge that equipment is going to be used to produce drugs, then no, it's not legal," Sergeant Darin Sheppard of the RCMP's Federal Serious and Organized Crime Synthetic Drug Operations told the Globe and Mail in an earlier interview.
"But when it's a piece of equipment like a pill press, that has a legitimate function – naturopaths can use them to make vitamins, supplements, stuff of that nature – then there are no regulations currently in place to control their import and sale."
Sgt. Sheppard said the RCMP has raised concerns about pill presses and other equipment, such as large-scale scientific glassware, that don't have many legitimate purposes. However, such changes don't come overnight, he said.
Health Canada said Wednesday it will "bring forward legislative options for consideration on the issue of pill presses." As well, the federal agency will support a private member's bill to add fentanyl precursors – many of which are legal – to Canada's Controlled Drugs and Substance Act, according to a statement provided by spokesman Eric Morrissette.
Earlier this month, a judge in Kelowna declined to hand down a harsher sentence to a man charged with trafficking fentanyl, as requested by the Crown, noting that fentanyl is a Schedule 1 drug like cocaine and should be treated as such.
The Canada Border Services Agency said it is aware of the fentanyl issue and will look at ways to enhance its abilities to detect and interdict narcotics in the postal stream.
"We will review our policies and procedures to ensure that adequate controls are in place to identify, examine and interdict shipments of fentanyl coming across our borders," read a statement provided by Dan Brien, director of communications for the federal Ministry of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness.
The CBSA processes about 60 million pieces of mail annually at mail centres in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, the statement said. Last year, there were more than 4,000 drug seizures from postal and courier facilities, which represented 53 per cent of all drug seizures.
Meanwhile, the task force will advise the province on additional actions to curb overdose deaths. Currently in the works are: the expansion of supervised consumption sites; improving accessibility to drugs such as Suboxone, an opioid substitution, and naloxone, which reverses opioid overdoses; and a testing service to help users determine if their drugs contain adulterants such as fentanyl.
The task force will also explore the idea of providing some severe addicts with pharmaceutical-grade narcotics at supervised consumption sites, an idea reported in The Globe and Mail last week.