OTTAWA — The ranking U.S. diplomat on drug enforcement policy is to visit Ottawa in July to kick-start a fresh round of co-operation between the two countries on tackling the opioid crisis.
That includes a renewed focus on stemming the flow of fentanyl into the two countries from China, The Canadian Press has learned.
The visit of Kirsten Madison, the State Department's assistant secretary for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, would be the first tangible step forward in the new joint Canada-U.S. effort that hatched out of the June 20 White House meeting between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Donald Trump.
Stamping out opioid overdose deaths, especially in the Rust Belt states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, has been a declared priority for Trump, whose path to victory in 2016 depended on voters in those states.
Trudeau announced the new initiative after his meeting with Trump, saying the two countries will work together and in multilateral organizations to find solutions to the crisis while deepening law-enforcement co-operation to combat trafficking.
A senior government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the high-level initiative, said Madison's July visit will start the discussion by reviewing existing co-operation and mapping out new strategies.
Only a small amount of illegal opioids enter the U.S .from Canada, which the U.S. readily acknowledges. The biggest source of the deadly drug for both countries is mail and courier packages from China, said the official.
Jim Carroll, the director of White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, has also expressed interest in coming to Ottawa to discuss opioids, said the official.
The U.S. Embassy in Ottawa said it wasn't announcing any upcoming meetings between Canada and the U.S. but that the two countries are working closely to combat the opioid crisis and the emerging global synthetic-drugs crisis.
A leading health expert questions whether all of the sudden flurry of cross-border meetings will actually lead to any concrete reduction of fatal overdoses in either country.
Donald MacPherson, the director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, said the focus on law enforcement — particularly intercepting mail from China — ignores the need for better medical intervention such as "substitution treatment."
Some medical journals suggest using methadone as a substitute to wean addicts off fentanyl.
MacPherson is also skeptical that either country can do anything to stem the flow of fentanyl from China.
"Fentanyl is a drug-smuggler's dream. It's so powerful. It comes in very small packages. It's very easy to move across borders. It's hard to detect. It's changed the nature of the illegal drug market, and possibly forever."
Ben Rowswell, the president of the Canadian International Council, says the initiative has a greater symbolic importance because it is part of the upward arc in bilateral relations from the last year's bottoming-out after the G7 summit in Quebec, when Trump insulted Trudeau on Twitter.
"I take it as a sign that the relationship is operating as it should now, after a year or two of not," said Rowswell, a retired diplomat who last served as the Canadian ambassador to Venezuela.
"It seems we're taking advantage of this new opening from the United States to normalize the relationship."
Tackling the crisis is clearly a passion of Trump's. That was on full display during a June 12 White House cabinet briefing that was televised on the U.S. non-profit C-Span broadcaster.
Carroll, the U.S. drug-policy chief, told Trump China is starting to take its fentanyl outflow seriously, and that he's planning to visit the People's Republic in the summer to follow-up.
"Absolutely, they're now at the table," Carroll told the president. "They want to talk to us. They're engaged."
Admiral Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health, brought Trump more good news: new data from the Centers for Disease Control that showed overdose deaths falling for the sixth consecutive month versus the same months the previous year.
That included drops of 4.8 per cent in New Hampshire, 8.1 per cent in Florida, 10.3 per cent in West Virginia, 18.2 per cent in Iowa, 18.5 per cent in Pennsylvania, and 23.3 per cent in Ohio.
Dan Ujczo, a cross-border expert with the Ohio law firm Dickinson Wright, said his state has been devastated by the opioid crisis, particularly in rural and industrial areas that are seen as "Trump country."
As a result, if Canada and the U.S. find common cause on tackling the crisis it will build a "reservoir of goodwill between the two countries and leaders," said Ujczo, a trade specialist who paid close attention to the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement that spawned the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA.
"If all politics is local, all trade is personal. Collaboration on issues that are devastating communities in Canada and the U.S. show that we are in this together," said Ujczo.
"While I do not believe that this type of collaboration will move the needle on USMCA, it builds that goodwill for other issues such as (customs) preclearance, migration issues, and serves as a preventative measure from any future tweetstorm."
Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press