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Ottawa tables bill to crack down on illegal shipment of opioids

Jane Philpott, Federal Minister of Health and Ralph Goodale, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, make an announcement regarding an act to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and to make related amendments to other Acts during a press conference in the foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, Dec. 12, 2016.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The federal government has unveiled a series of measures aimed at curtailing Canada's booming underground market in fentanyl, just as the death toll climbs and more communities sound the alarm about illicit drugs.

Under Bill C-37, tabled in the House of Commons on Monday, pill-press machines used in clandestine labs to manufacture bootleg fentanyl could no longer be imported into Canada, and border guards who inspect goods coming in would have broader powers to seize and open suspect packages.

The bill is the Liberal government's most comprehensive response to date to Canada's opioid crisis and signals a significant departure from its predecessor's tough-on-crime approach.

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Read more: Toronto and Montreal welcome legislation easing restrictions on supervised drug consumption sites

Read more: How Canada got addicted to fentanyl

Read more: How a B.C. couple's struggle with addiction ended in deadly fentanyl overdoses

"We need to take swift action on the opioid crisis to save lives," Health Minister Jane Philpott told reporters. "We need a renewed focus on harm reduction."

Dr. Philpott said the government's new Canadian Drugs and Substances Strategy replaces the National Anti-Drug Strategy introduced by Stephen Harper's Conservatives in 2007. The Minister of Health rather than the Minister of Justice is leading it.

"It will reframe problematic substance use as the public-health issue that it is," Dr. Philpott said. "We will reinstate harm reduction as a key pillar in this strategy."

The proposed legislation also reduces barriers to opening and operating supervised drug-consumption sites in Canada. The previous government attempted to shut down Vancouver's Insite, then the only site in North America where people could inject illegal drugs under a nurse's supervision.

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After losing that battle in court, the Tories introduced legislation making it difficult if not impossible for other sites to open and any mention of harm reduction was banished from Health Canada's website.

In addition to giving supervised injection sites the green light, the other measures are aimed at reducing the influx of illicit drugs into Canada.

A Globe and Mail investigation this year revealed how China's chemicals industry has helped foster a market for illicit fentanyl in Canada.

The drug is manufactured in China, ordered online and easily shipped overseas by suppliers who exploit gaps at the Canadian border.

Border guards are currently not authorized to open packages weighing less than 30 grams without the consent of the recipient. They can open and inspect any package exceeding that threshold and use detection technology to screen all international mail.

Bill C-37 would eliminate the size distinction, giving agents the go-ahead to search international packages less than 30 grams arriving through the mail and by courier.

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"Incoming packages will be inspected if there are reasonable grounds to be suspicious," Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told reporters. "This is vital when you are dealing with deadly substances like fentanyl and carfentanil."

In a 30-gram pack, he said, holding up a small envelope, "that's 15,000 deadly doses [of fentanyl]."

The Canada Border Services Agency is the first line of defence in preventing illicit goods from entering the country. But the Globe investigation found that online suppliers in China devise ways to conceal the drugs and skirt inspection rules.

The suppliers often ship drugs in packages under the 30-gram threshold and conceal the fentanyl powder in silica packages placed alongside a pack of urine-test strips. Another way they avoid seizure at the border is to gift-wrap the package or label it as household detergent with an accompanying certificate of analysis.

Once the drug arrives in Canada, it is cut into, or made to look like, other drugs, including cocaine, heroin or the popular prescription painkiller OxyContin, which was removed from the market in Canada in 2012.

The pill presses are used to stamp out pills that are dyed green and stamped with an 80 on one side and CDN on the other to resemble OxyContin.

Senator Vernon White, who has been calling for a ban on importing pill-press machines, questioned why the government did not introduce the changes by way of regulation, which could have taken effect immediately. The legislation, by contrast, will take a few months to work its way through the House of Commons.

"They don't need legislation," Mr. White said in an interview. "If you know what it is you want to do, do it."

So far this year, at least 622 people have died of illicit drug overdoses in British Columbia, the epicentre of the crisis. As well, carfentanil, a synthetic opioid used to tranquilize elephants and other large animals, has been detected in four provinces. Just last week, Waterloo Region, Toronto and St. Thomas each announced that carfentanil, which is many times more potent than fentanyl, had turned up in their cities.

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About the Author

Karen Howlett is a national reporter based in Toronto. She returned to the newsroom in 2013 after covering Ontario politics at The Globe’s Queen’s Park bureau for seven years. Prior to that, she worked in the paper’s Vancouver bureau and in The Report on Business, where she covered a variety of beats, including financial services and securities regulation. More

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