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The drug is prescribed as a patch to treat severe pain, but is showing up in liquid, powder or pill form and in illegal drugs such as heroin.TOM GANNAM/The Associated Press

Vancouver police announced a major drug bust on Tuesday morning that targeted distributors of fentanyl, a deadly opioid that has been linked to a quarter of the province's drug overdoses last year.

Ten people have been charged with a total of 58 counts of trafficking and a variety of other offences, including attempted murder and assault causing bodily harm. In addition, approximately $1.4-million worth of drugs were seized, including 29,000 fentanyl pills.

Police also seized 9.5 kilograms of crack cocaine, one kilogram of methamphetamine and more than 500,000 pills that have yet to be identified, along with other drugs, vehicles, cash and weapons.

The bust was part of Project Tainted, an operation launched in October, 2014, by Vancouver police and the RCMP, after a series of fentanyl-related overdoses raised alarm about the drug.

"Police have delivered a significant blow to the local fentanyl drug trade," Vancouver Police Department Superintendent Mike Porteous said at a news conference on Tuesday morning. He said the operation was "aimed at disrupting the fentanyl distribution lines throughout the Lower Mainland," and involved one of the biggest fentanyl distributors in the region.

Fentanyl is a powerful prescription painkiller that is now being mixed with illicit street drugs, including heroin, oxycodone and cocaine. Many users do not realize they are taking fentanyl when they buy other drugs, which can lead to overdoses. Even those who buy fentanyl intentionally are at risk, because the concentration of the drug can vary between products, and even a slight increase can cause an overdose.

Supt. Porteous said fentanyl is being used because it is "exponentially more profitable" than other drugs, since only a minute amount is needed to produce the same effect as a less potent product.

The fentanyl pills seized during Project Tainted were disguised as oxycodone pills, but contained only fentanyl and caffeine. Chief Superintendent Kevin deBruyckere, head of British Columbia's RCMP federal policing program, said these are becoming more common in Western Canada.

"They're becoming increasingly sophisticated in the way they're pressing pills," he said.

Project Tainted follows on the heels of other fentanyl-related drug busts in cities across the country, including Calgary, Saskatoon and Ottawa.

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