The opioid crisis and the elephant in the room
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.