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An OPP officer displays bags containing fentanyl as Ontario Provincial Police host a news conference in Vaughan, Ont., on Thursday, February 23, 2017, detailing an investigation into illegal firearms and trafficking of illegal drugs in Ontario, Quebec and the United States.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Mayors of Canada's largest cities and federal cabinet ministers pledged on Friday to forge a united front in an effort to thwart a spiralling drug crisis.

Health Minister Jane Philpott and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale heard first-hand during a conference call with the mayors that cities are struggling with fatal overdoses linked to illicit fentanyl.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, chair of a task force representing municipal leaders of 12 cities, said the ministers agreed to strengthen collaboration to combat the drug crisis and to meet with the mayors in the spring.

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The commitment to work together comes as more powerful drugs hit the streets, posing new challenges for government leaders. Carfentanil, a powerful animal tranquilizer responsible for a spate of overdose deaths in Alberta and the United States, was found in 40 samples of illegal drugs in 2016, new figures show.

"The big problem is we don't have good data on which drugs are killing people, exactly," Mr. Robertson said in an interview. "There's a lag time with testing, and across the country there's totally inadequate data on how many deaths and overdoses are occurring."

The figures, based on samples seized by police and analyzed by Health Canada's Drug Analysis Service, show that carfentanil was first detected in July, 2016, in samples from British Columbia. But by September, it had also turned up in samples from Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario.

The figures may not be representative of the market because sample sizes can range from a couple of pills to several kilograms, a Health Canada spokeswoman said.

However, amid a dearth of national surveillance data on Canada's deadly opioid crisis, the lab results point to a booming underground market in fentanyl and its more powerful analogues. The Globe and Mail has reported that the number of illegal-drug samples containing fentanyl doubled every year in Canada between 2012 –when dealers first began smuggling a black-market version of the prescription painkiller into the country from China – and 2016.

Toronto Mayor John Tory said he addressed during the conference call the need for more timely figures on opioid overdose deaths. British Columbia publishes the number of fatal overdoses linked to illicit opioids every month, and Alberta is planning to release data on deaths linked to fentanyl every six weeks. By comparison, the most recent opioid-overdose death figures for Ontario are from the end of 2015.

"I am frustrated that I can tell you how many parking tickets were issued last year but I can't tell you how many people died from drug overdoses," Mr. Tory said in a statement.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities launched the task force representing mayors of 12 cities earlier this month. Friday's conference call included extensive discussion on the need to expand treatment programs significantly for people addicted to opioids, Mr. Tory said.

"These treatment programs, while sometimes controversial, are far superior to people being left on the streets, exposed to dangerous drugs like fentanyl," he said.

The federal government has tabled legislation that would make it easier for communities to open safe-injection sites and that would ban the importation of pill-press machines used to manufacture bootleg fentanyl.

In British Columbia, 914 people died last year of opioid overdoses. Alberta had 343 deaths linked to fentanyl and its analogues last year, including 22 from carfentanil, which can be fatal in quantities as small as a grain of salt and has no known safe application for human use.

Most provinces do not yet have the tools to monitor the number of overdose deaths owing to carfentanil. Alberta's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner is among a small number of toxicology laboratories in Canada that can positively identify carfentanil in human blood.

Carfentanil testing in British Columbia will not be available until March or April of this year.

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