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Clark calls for agreement with China to cut flow of fentanyl into B.C.

Premier Christy Clark talks to reporters at a news conference about the impact of opioid overdose in Ottawa on Thursday

FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Canada needs to work with Chinese authorities to cut off the supply of deadly fentanyl into this country, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale and B.C. Premier Christy Clark say.

The two met in Ottawa on Thursday, along with federal Health Minister Jane Philpott, to discuss Canada's opioid crisis before a two-day summit on the matter. British Columbia is the province hardest hit by fentanyl. At least 622 people have died of illicit-drug overdoses so far this year. The powerful opioid was detected in 60 per cent of those deaths.

The majority of Canada's illicit-fentanyl supply originates in China. It can be ordered online and its high potency allows it to be easily smuggled into the country in small packages through regular mail. In Canada, it is cut into, or made to look like, a number of other drugs – including cocaine, heroin and oxycodone – and sold for considerable profits.

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"We need to step up our diplomatic efforts with China," Ms. Clark said in a telephone interview from Ottawa after the meeting. "The U.S. government has secured an agreement [that] the Chinese government will try and stop fentanyl from leaving their shores and entering the U.S. We need a similar agreement."

"This is not a Canada-only problem," Mr. Goodale said. "This is one that could have dire consequences in many parts of the world … so it takes an international effort as well as a domestic one."

Under the U.S.-China agreement, announced in September, the countries will increase exchanges of law-enforcement and scientific information in efforts to control the movement of fentanyl and its analogues.

Keeping illicit drugs from abroad out of Canada will also require more personnel and enhanced screening technology at the border. Ms. Clark said B.C. recently paid for fentanyl-screening equipment for the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) – all packages from China go through Vancouver – but that such expenses are a federal responsibility.

The Premier also called for legislative changes to grant the CBSA more power to screen packages. Canadian border guards cannot open packages weighing less than 30 grams without the consent of the recipient.

As well, Ms. Clark reiterated an earlier call for the federal government to restrict access to industrial pill presses, which are legal to buy and import. However, critics note that provinces can make such a move. Alberta in May passed a bill to restrict pill presses that comes into force on Jan. 1.

The B.C. New Democrats' public safety critic, Mike Farnworth, who in July tabled legislation to restrict access to pill presses and other equipment, said the Premier would rather point fingers than take action.

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"The fact is, B.C. could be shutting down the places that are selling these things today," he said. "We had a private member's bill on the order paper this summer when we were sitting. It would have passed unanimously … and yet because this Premier doesn't want to face the public in the fall session, she just wants to point a finger at Ottawa."

The opioid summit on Friday and Saturday will bring together top health officials from across the country. It will be hosted by Dr. Philpott and Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins.

Dr. Hoskins said much of the summit will explore ways to help people who are suffering from addiction, while examining ways to prevent overdoses. It will also look at the thorny issue of how doctors prescribe powerful medications such as painkillers.

In some cases, opioids are the best solution, Dr. Hoskins said, noting they are commonly prescribed to ease the discomfort of patients with cancer and in palliative care. But he said it is vital they be doled out at the right levels.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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News reporter

Based in Vancouver, Andrea Woo is a general assignment reporter with a focus on multimedia journalism. More

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