Fentanyl trafficking presents new challenges for police, experts say

published on February 26, 2017 by Linda Givetash in The Globe and Mail

Illicit drugs have always been a problem in port cities, but experts say the emergence of highly potent synthetic opioids that are fuelling British Columbia’s overdose crisis are slipping through borders in new ways, presenting challenges for law enforcement.

International regulations, online ordering and the potency of the drug are among the factors making it difficult to prevent the drug from slipping through Canada’s borders.

More than 1,000 people have died from illicit drug overdoses in B.C. since January 2016, many as a result of the powerful opioids fentanyl and carfentanil which law enforcement says largely comes from China.

Canada Border Services Agency says seizures of fentanyl at Vancouver International Mail Centre have more than doubled to 54 last year from 23 in 2015.

But RCMP national drug program co-ordinator Sgt. Luc Chicoine said while lives are saved with every seizure, there’s no knowing how much of a dent every confiscation of drugs makes.

“For example, if we seize 100 kilos of a certain drug that’s coming into the country, was it only 100 kilos coming in or was it a million kilos?” he said. “We don’t have the capability of identifying what is the full scope.”

The high potency of fentanyl has allowed traffickers to transport smaller quantities with other imports, on individuals or through the mail, making it harder for agencies to detect.

Thomas Kerr, addictions researcher and professor of medicine at the University of British Columbia, said it’s no accident Vancouver’s geography is playing into the overdose crisis.

“People who work in the area of drug policy have known for decades that no matter which continent you are on, port cities tend to have a higher availability of a greater diversity of drugs, and that those drugs also tend to be more potent,” he said.

Simon Fraser University criminology professor Neil Boyd said the use of opiates in the Vancouver area dates back to the late 1800s.

Smoking opium was the recreational drug of choice in China at the time, he said, and was brought to B.C. with migration and trade.

He said the drug didn’t become illegal until the early part of the 20th century, and even then, public health was not the concern behind the law. Moral attitudes about opioids in Western countries, including Canada, drove prohibition, Boyd said.

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