The opi­oid cri­sis and the ele­phant in the room

Times Colonist - - Islander - FILIPPO FERRI Filippo Ferri lives in Esquimalt.

Deaths from opi­oid over­doses have reached cri­sis lev­els in Bri­tish Columbia, Canada and the United States. In 2017, deaths from non-pre­scrip­tion drugs in B.C. were 1,420, with more than 80 per cent at­trib­uted to fen­tanyl.

This level is so high that, for the first time in many years, the life ex­pectancy of Bri­tish Columbians has de­creased. For Canada as a whole, the num­ber of over­dose deaths is ex­pected to be al­most 4,000, while in the U.S., deaths are pre­dicted to be about 72,000. This is a cri­sis. The cul­prit in most of th­ese deaths is il­licit fen­tanyl from China.

I laud the B.C. gov­ern­ment’s re­cent law­suit against opi­oid man­u­fac­tur­ers as one step to­ward ad­dress­ing this cri­sis, but what is re­ally killing our cit­i­zens is il­le­gal fen­tanyl from China. How­ever, be­yond ac­knowl­edg­ment that China is the source of al­most all of this fen­tanyl, it ap­pears that our gov­ern­ments are tip­toe­ing around this ele­phant in the room and ap­pear to be do­ing lit­tle or noth­ing to pres­sure China to crack down on the man­u­fac­tur­ing and dis­tri­bu­tion of il­le­gal fen­tanyl from within its borders.

China is the world’s largest man­u­fac­turer and top ex­porter of phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals and the in­gre­di­ents that make them. A re­cent re­port by the U.S.-China Eco­nomic and Se­cu­rity Re­view Com­mis­sion in­di­cated that there are more than 5,000 lab­o­ra­to­ries in China ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing fen­tanyl or its de­riv­a­tives. Poor reg­u­la­tions and lax over­sight al­low this fen­tanyl to be man­u­fac­tured and shipped around the world. The po­tency of fen­tanyl (only three grains will kill a per­son) means that it can be eas­ily trans­ported by mail.

A re­cent news­pa­per ar­ti­cle showed how order­ing fen­tanyl from a lab­o­ra­tory in China was as easy as a few clicks of a com­puter mouse. Th­ese small quan­ti­ties are also eas­ily hid­den in ship­ping con­tain­ers reach­ing our shores.

Chi­nese law en­force­ment and drug reg­u­la­tors ap­pear to be un­able to prop­erly in­ves­ti­gate, mon­i­tor and reg­u­late the pro­duc­tion of il­le­gal chem­i­cals within their coun­try. The lack of mon­i­tor­ing and over­sight of this in­dus­try by Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties is puz­zling.

Re­mem­ber, China is a coun­try that has per­fected the large-scale mon­i­tor­ing of its pop­u­la­tion; you need only look at the ef­forts to con­trol its Uyghur pop­u­la­tion to see how ef­fec­tive it can be at keep­ing a check on per­ceived is­sues. It seems un­likely that in a highly ef­fec­tive po­lice state, with a pop­u­la­tion of 1.38 bil­lion peo­ple, the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment can­not keep track of a mere 5,000 phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal lab­o­ra­to­ries within its borders. Ei­ther Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties are in­dif­fer­ent to our cri­sis or, worse, they are some­how com­plicit.

I ad­mit that I am no ex­pert on th­ese sub­jects, but I feel com­pelled to voice my opin­ion, hav­ing wit­nessed the dev­as­tat­ing ef­fects of this epi­demic on sev­eral friends and col­leagues. In watch­ing our coun­try deal with this cri­sis, it seems to me that we have to stop ig­nor­ing the ele­phant in the room.

Clearly, our gov­ern­ments have to put mean­ing­ful pres­sure on China to clamp down on the il­le­gal pro­duc­tion and trade of fen­tanyl. Per­haps pres­sure from a fi­nan­cial an­gle based on trade and in­vest­ment war­rants con­sid­er­a­tion. China has been court­ing Canada for a free-trade agree­ment. Maybe the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment should stip­u­late that ne­go­ti­a­tions will start only when the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment has ef­fec­tively clamped down on il­le­gal fen­tanyl and the num­ber of fen­tanyl­re­lated deaths in Canada de­clines.

Re­cently, the B.C. min­is­ter of men­tal health and ad­dic­tions stated, with re­spect to a pro­posed law­suit against do­mes­tic opi­oid man­u­fac­tur­ers, that: “No amount of money from this ac­tion can pos­si­bly make up for the loss of some­one’s child, some­one’s part­ner, or some­one’s friend.” Per­haps we should move for­ward with this think­ing in deal­ing with the fen­tanyl epi­demic. We should pres­sure our pro­vin­cial and fed­eral gov­ern­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tives to seek ways to force China to stop the il­le­gal flow of fen­tanyl to our shores.

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