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Backbencher law illuminates tough battle against synthetic drugs

MP for West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country John Weston speaks at a ceremony commemorating the Lions Gate bridge as a national historic site of Canada

Brett Beadle for The Globe and Mail/brett beadle The Globe and Mail

On the final day of Parliament last March just before the federal election, a rookie Conservative MP from British Columbia pulled off a rare feat for a backbencher - he got a law passed.

John Weston won unanimous support in the House for a private member's bill that comes into force Thursday. It is an amendment to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act that police hope will help them in what so far has been a losing battle against the illegal manufacture of methamphetamines and ecstasy.

"People were calling for something to end the scourge of crystal meth and ecstasy," said Mr. Weston, who has supported drug-rehab programs in the Vancouver area. "The more I learned, the more I realized this was something really important."

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The new law for the first time makes it a crime to possess the tools of synthetic drug production - anything from chemicals to pill presses - if it can be proven they were intended for making illegal drugs.

Until now, while the import of so-called precursor chemicals was regulated, possession once they were in the country was not illegal - making Canada an attractive venue in the worldwide manufacture and smuggling of meth and ecstasy.

"It's going to give law enforcement an excellent tool that we never had before," said Sergeant Douglas Culver, the national co-ordinator for the RCMP's synthetic drug program. "Before we almost had to wait until the drugs were produced. This way hopefully some of the labs will never get set up and the drugs will never hit the streets."

The new legislation sheds light on the continuing dilemma law enforcement faces in grappling with the booming traffic in synthetic drugs.

Unlike hard drugs such as cocaine or heroin, where possession of even the tiniest amount is illegal, the chemicals that are the basic building blocks of meth - ephedrine and pseudoephedrine - are "controlled" but legal to import. They are commonly used in many over-the-counter cold and allergy medications.

"Law enforcement has had a tough time with this crime - it always skirts the legitimate marketplace," Sgt. Culver said.

Sgt. Culver said at least half of the 24,000 kilograms of precursors that are imported legally into Canada are diverted into meth production by "rogue companies" that set themselves up as legitimate businesses.

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Close ties to India and China, major producers of the chemicals, also give some organized crime groups in Canada easy access to barrels of the precursors that are smuggled into the country.

That has earned Canada the unwelcome reputation as one of the world's leading synthetic drug pushers.

In its annual reports, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has labelled Canada as "a major trafficking hub for meth and ecstasy," mainly to the U.S. and Asia. Its latest world drug survey - to be released Thursday - is expected to re-affirm Canada's central role in the trade.

As black-market prices for the precursors have soared in recent years, police say meth traffickers in Canada are turning toward a more primitive way to get the chemicals they need - buying massive amounts of over-the-counter medications and crushing them to extract the ingredients.

About half the sales of cold and allergy medications Canadians buy every year - $150- to $200-million a year - contain pseudo-ephedrine, prompting law enforcement to push for the prescription sale of these popular products.

When Oregon - one of the U.S. states hit hardest by the meth epidemic - first passed a prescription-only law in 2006, it saw a dramatic collapse in illegal meth labs. Mississippi soon followed and other states are considering similar moves.

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But Gerry Harrington of Consumer Health Products Canada, the association that represents the major drug manufacturers, called it a "solution for a problem we don't have."

He said the industry's own Meth Watch program - which tries to track "suspicious" spikes in retail purchases of the health products - has been effective. Last year, pharmacies in Vancouver and Toronto alerted police when they suspected "a fairly large-scale diversion" was taking place.

Health Canada agrees that the industry is "already subject to multiple levels" of oversight, said department spokesperson Olivia Caron. "At present, Health Canada is not considering new stricter regulatory controls."

But back in Vancouver, Mr. Weston is not ruling out making the prescription-sale of pseudoephedrine products his next crusade.

"I'm intrigued by Oregon's law," he said. "It seems to me that if there are real dividends for the health of Canadians, we ought to actively consider it."

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