The Chinese government has agreed to work with the RCMP to combat the flow of illicit fentanyl into Canada, tacitly acknowledging the deadly impact of the Asian country's sprawling chemicals industry on this nation's overdose epidemic.
China's Ministry of Public Security and the Mounties announced on Thursday they have agreed to work on a co-ordinated approach to fentanyl exports, although they were short on specifics. The two law-enforcement agencies will formalize their joint investigations next week.
The announcement was heralded in British Columbia, the province that has been hit hardest by the opioid crisis, but officials cautioned the situation will not change overnight and further measures – such as a ban on pill presses – are needed.
A Globe and Mail investigation earlier this year revealed how fentanyl is manufactured in China and how easily it is shipped to Canada.
The drug can be ordered online, and its high potency allows it to be smuggled in small packages through regular mail.
Once in Canada, the drug is cut into, or made to look like, other drugs including cocaine, heroin and oxycodone and sold for considerable profits.
China's chemicals industry has helped foster a booming underground trade in fentanyl, a drug up to 100 times more powerful than morphine.
At the first-ever national summit on opioids in Ottawa last week, B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake urged the federal government to work with Chinese authorities to cut off the flow of illicit fentanyl to Canada.
Health Minister Jane Philpott acknowledged during the summit that British Columbia has borne the brunt of a crisis that is killing Canadians at an alarming rate. In British Columbia, at least 622 people have died of illicit drug overdoses so far this year. Fentanyl was detected in 60 per cent of those deaths.
Dr. Philpott said she is working with her colleagues in Public Safety, Justice and Foreign Affairs to "turn the tide." On Thursday, she told reporters she is pleased that discussions are taking place between top Canadian and Chinese enforcement officials, "not only to address the incoming flow of illicit fentanyl and other products like that, but to be able to actually take measures that might address this product at source."
The RCMP said in a statement that Commissioner Bob Paulson and Chinese Ministry of Public Security vice-minister Chen Zhimin agreed to "strengthen coordinated law enforcement actions to disrupt the supply of fentanyl and synthetic opioids."
Sergeant Luc Chicoine, the RCMP's national drug co-ordinator, in an interview said the involvement of the Chinese government will be of enormous assistance to Canada.
Part of the challenge in working with China, he said, has been that fentanyl has not gained a significant foothold among drug users in that country, meaning authorities may have had less incentive to control the illicit trade to the West.
"At the end of the day, we have both governments now in agreement to work together," Sgt. Chicoine said, not "just a bunch of cops."
Senator Vernon White, who introduced a bill earlier this year that would make several ingredients used to produce fentanyl illegal in Canada, said he hopes the agreement translates into action.
"Right now, we're killing people every day in this country," he said in an interview.
Other countries have not been able to get China to move from "talk to action," he said. Australia, for instance, still has precursors (chemicals used to make a drug) for crystal meth coming from China.
Mike Morris, B.C.'s Minister of Public Safety, said Thursday's announcement will prove "very critical in our work against the fentanyl crisis that we have in B.C. and across Canada." He said it was important to note China has also begun designating precursors to fentanyl as controlled substances under Chinese law.
Mr. Morris, a former RCMP officer, said British Columbia would like the federal government to ban pill presses.
When asked how quickly he expected the agreement between the RCMP and Chinese police to bear fruit, Mr. Morris said: "Based on my previous experience working in the force, I think this is a great step, but it's crossing international borders, it's across the ocean, so I don't know how soon that we can see some tangible results from this."
Mr. Morris said it was also difficult to predict how much less fentanyl would make its way into Canada.
Robert Gordon, a criminology professor at Simon Fraser University, said there is "no doubt" a significant amount of fentanyl has been flowing into Canada via China.
He called Thursday's announcement "good news."
"Up until now, very little effort has been made on the part of the Chinese authorities to stop that flow," he said in an interview.
Prof. Gordon said the agreement indicates China is admitting that fentanyl produced there has had an impact in Canada.
"It's hard to deny it. I'm sure the Chinese government have been embarrassed about it, as you might expect. It's an acknowledgment of the fact that they are a source of this particular synthetic drug," he said.
Officials at the Chinese embassy in Ottawa could not immediately be reached for comment.
With a report from Robert Fife in Ottawa