UN adds fentanyl-making chemicals to list of controlled substances

The narcotic fentanyl took centre stage at the annual United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs, March 16.

Two chemicals used in the making of fentanyl were added to the "International List of Controlled Substances."

However, a B.C. expert on substance abuse says controlling chemical ingredients isn't the solution.

"We need to do everything we can, so the decision is welcome," said Dr. Evan Wood, a professor of medicine at the University of British Columbia.

"At the same time though, you can't get out of a problem with the same kind of thinking that got you into the problem."

Wood is the director of the B.C. Centre on Substance Use. He has been an outspoken member of the provincial task force created to deal with the opioid crisis and he joined On the Coast guest host Gloria Macarenko to share his thoughts on the UN meeting.

Wood said preventative measures like controlling substances only deal with symptoms of the crisis and not the root cause.

He said the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs was created to crack down on opium — a response that has partly contributed to the rise of heroin and synthetic drugs like fentanyl.

Wood said the last time there was an international push for precursor (chemical ingredient) control, it was for methamphetamine. When Canada and the U.S. banned ingredients used in its production, Wood said production just shifted to Mexico.

"There was a huge balloon in the amount of crystal methamphetamine that was being produced in Mexico and making it's way onto the streets of North America," he said.

'Needs to be turned on its head'

"Anytime you focus on the supply side of a market, that has the perverse effect of inciting innovation, you incite new suppliers, new drugs and more violent means to control the market," he said.

In Wood's opinion, the entire UN drug enforcement system "needs to be turned on its head."

Instead, Wood wants to see drugs treated as a public health problem rather than a criminal justice issue.

He said he'd like to see Canada make major investments in addiction treatment and pointed to Western European countries like Portugal as an example. Wood said Portugal took an evidence-based approach rather than a punitive approach and essentially decriminalized drug use.

He said in terms of addiction treatment Canada needs to play catch-up in a big way, but when compared with nations like the U.S. — we're not at the bottom of the pack. 

"We'd all welcome everything that can possibly be done to reduce the availability of fentanyl," he said. "However, people talk about pushing on one side of a balloon — it just balloons out somewhere else. I think that's a good analogy for precursor control."

Wood said the international community should focus less on the supply side and more on demand.

With files from On the Coast

To listen to the full interview, click on the audio labelled: UN adds fentanyl ingredients to control list