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Firefighters in Vancouver tend to an overdose victim in September. British Columbia has become an epicentre for the opioid crisis affecting Canada because of its proximity to China, where fentanyl is produced. In 2015 alone, 622 people in the province died from illicit drug overdoses.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

The federal government is looking at arming Canada's border guards with broader powers to open and seize suspect packages, as a growing volume of illicit fentanyl is smuggled into the country.

Caroline Xavier, a vice-president at the Canada Border Services Agency, told a House of Commons committee examining the opioid crisis that the government is reviewing the Customs Act to determine whether restrictions that prevent guards from opening small packages should be removed.

Currently, border guards who inspect goods coming into the country are not authorized to open packages weighing less than 30 grams without the consent of the recipient. They can open and inspect any package exceeding that threshold and use detection technology to screen all mail.

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Read more: A Killer High: How Canada got addicted to fentanyl

Read more: A Killer High: Fentanyl's Deadly Path: How the powerful drug gets through Canada's border

Read more: How a B.C. couple's struggle with addiction ended in deadly fentanyl overdoses

A recent report prepared by the standing committee on health called on Ottawa to give agents the authority to search packages under 30 grams arriving through the mail and by courier. Ms. Xavier was not available for an interview.

Nicholas Dorion, a spokesman for the CBSA, said in an e-mail response to questions from The Globe and Mail that the agency reviews its operating procedures on a continuous basis to ensure that they support national security and public safety priorities. "This includes stopping fentanyl at the border," he said.

The agency, the first line of defence in preventing illicit goods from entering the country, is responsible for clearing international mail. It has made 114 seizures of fentanyl since 2014, Jacques Cloutier, an associate vice-president at the CBSA, said at an opioid conference in Ottawa last month. So far this year, the number of fentanyl seizures has surpassed those for all of 2015, he said. Between May 13 and Nov. 10 of this year, the agency made 53 fentanyl seizures.

At this time, Mr. Cloutier said, most shipments of the powerful opioid are coming from China and Hong Kong.

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"I need to stress 'at this time,'" he told the conference, hosted by federal Health Minister Jane Philpott. "As you disrupt one network, another network appears."

The proposed Customs Act changes are under consideration as fentanyl, a drug up to 100 times more powerful than morphine, is killing Canadians at an alarming rate. So far this year, at least 622 people have died of illicit drug overdoses in British Columbia, which has become the epicentre of the crisis because of its proximity to China. As well, carfentanil, a synthetic opioid used to tranquilize large animals that is many times more potent than fentanyl and that can be fatal in quantities as small as a grain of salt, has been detected in four provinces, creating a new sense of urgency.

In Ontario, Waterloo Region, Toronto and St. Thomas each sounded the alarm last week over the detection of carfentanil in their cities.

"With something like carfentanil appearing in our community, it has all the potential to escalate overdoses and the burden on first responders and area hospitals," Michael Parkinson, a community engagement co-ordinator with the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council, said.

A Globe investigation this year revealed how China's chemicals industry has helped foster a booming underground trade in fentanyl. The drug is manufactured in China, ordered online and easily shipped overseas by suppliers who exploit gaps at the Canadian border.

Fentanyl and many chemically similar drugs are classified as controlled substances in Canada, making them illegal to import without a licence or permit. But online suppliers in China devise ways to conceal the drugs and skirt inspection rules, the investigation found.

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The suppliers often ship drugs in packages under the 30-gram threshold and conceal the fentanyl powder in silica packages placed alongside a pack of urine test strips. Another way they avoid seizure at the border is to gift-wrap the package or label it as household detergent with an accompanying certificate of analysis.

Once the drug arrives in Canada, it is cut into, or made to look like, other drugs, including cocaine, heroin or the popular prescription painkiller OxyContin, which was removed from the Canadian market in 2012.

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