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Street artist Smokey D visits a mural he painted dedicated to his wife in a Downtown Eastside alley in Vancouver, British Columbia, Wednesday, December 21, 2016. Dawn Heather Sangster passed away of a fentanyl overdose in February of 2016.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

The RCMP and China's Ministry of Public Security have recently struck a formal agreement to share intelligence aimed at stopping the flow of fentanyl and other illicit synthetic opioids into Canada.

China is the No. 1 global source of fentanyl because that country's vast chemical and pharmaceutical industries are loosely regulated and poorly monitored. Many pharmaceutical facilities also operate there illegally, producing the dangerous drug and shipping it into North America.

RCMP Chief Superintendent Andris Zarins recently informed the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs committee that the Mounties had renewed a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese Ministry of Public Security to strengthen co-operation on "crime investigations involving illegal drugs, tri-national crimes and smuggling … to disrupt the export of fentanyl including classifying a number of fentanyl analogs as controlled substances under Chinese law and investigating leads by Canadian law enforcement."

Read more: Health Minister orders review of opioid guidelines after conflict-of-interest revelations

In his testimony, Chief Supt. Zarins said Chinese authorities have been quite helpful in efforts to combat the trade in fentanyl, pointing out that Beijing banned the manufacture and sale of four variations of fentanyl on March 1, a move that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration called a "game changer" in the battle against manufactured opioids.

"We are working very hard to get a better handle on it with them. They are co-operating with us and we are moving forward," Chief Supt. Zarins said, but he also told senators the Mounties are cautious in what information they share with their Chinese counterparts.

"We're always aware of the care that we take when we share information with any country, not just China," he said. "So as we move forward, as the trust level carries on, the more the sharing can happen."

Chief Supt. Zarins was testifying on Bill C-37 – which received royal assent last Thursday – that prohibits the unregistered importation of pill presses and allows border officials to screen packages weighing 30 grams or less if there are reasonable grounds.

"We have noted that fentanyl powder and equivalent substances that are most often smuggled into Canada come mainly from China," Lisa Janes, director-general of Canada Border Services Agency, told the Senate. "With extreme potency where an amount measured in milligrams can cause a fatal overdose, a package weighing 30 grams could contain as many as 15,000 fatal doses."

The RCMP media-affairs department would not allow Chief Supt. Zarins to be interviewed by The Globe and Mail to outline how the Chinese authorities are helping the police crackdown on opioids smuggling into Canada. The media office merely released the same statement about the co-operation agreement that the Chief Supt. Zarins had read to the Senate committee in March.

The Chinese embassy in Ottawa was also unwilling to discuss what China is doing to help stop illegal imports of fentanyl.

"On your question, the Chinese embassy has no information on this specific issue."

In a speech last week in Vancouver, Canada's ambassador to China, John McCallum, lauded the RCMP outreach to Chinese police authorities.

"Fentanyl is the cause of a major public-health crisis in Canada with over 1,000 deaths, and China is a major source of that drug," Mr. McCallum said in the speech posted on the Global Affairs website. "If we want to address this crisis, we must work with China.

"And I might say, the Chinese government has been working very effectively with us in this area."

Although the RCMP was unwilling to talk about the fentanyl crisis and its co-operation with China, a recent report by The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission provides details on how Chinese opioids are smuggled into North America.

"China is the main supplier of fentanyl to the United States, Mexico and Canada. Because illicit fentanyl is not widely used in China, authorities place little emphasis on controlling its production and export," said the report published in February.

"Chinese law enforcement and drug investigators are unable to effectively regulate the high volume of drugs and chemicals the country produces."

The report said most of the fentanyl making its way to the United States has been fabricated, often legally, in factories in China before being shipped to criminal networks in Mexico and to a lesser extent in Canada, and then smuggled over the border.

In other cases, the drugs are purchased on clandestine Internet-trading sites.

"Chinese chemical exporters utilize various methods to covertly ship drugs to the Western Hemisphere, including sending illicit materials through a chain of forwarding systems, mislabelling narcotics shipments and modifying chemicals so they are not controlled in the United States," the report stated.

The exported products are sent to small-scale distributors and criminal organizations across the United States who package and sell the product, often mixing it with other drugs such as heroin.

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