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How Globe and Mail reporters traced the rise of fentanyl

Fentanyl pills.

Handout/The Canadian Press

The rash of overdose deaths, from a potent new street drug, was alarming. In Alberta alone, illicit fentanyl was linked to 272 deaths in 2015, raising questions about the response of the federal and provincial governments to a mounting public-health crisis.

The first questions The Globe and Mail sought to answer: How many other Canadians were dying after consuming this new street drug – a bootleg version of the prescription painkiller fentanyl, manufactured offshore? And how was it getting smuggled into the country?

Canada does not have a national database tracking deaths from opioid overdoses. In a bid to fill that gap, The Globe contacted coroners and medical examiners in every province and territory. Still, it was not possible to compile a national tally, because each region collects and interprets data differently. And many of the statistics were out of date: Ontario's most recent numbers were from 2013.

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But an exhaustive Internet search seemed to reveal an alarming trend: The scourge of fentanyl was rapidly moving east from Western Canada. Many communities across the country were sounding the alarm about a drug known on the street as "greenies," indicating a connection between illicit fentanyl and OxyContin, the prescription painkiller that was removed from the Canadian market in 2012. Meanwhile, front-line health-care workers, contacted by The Globe in communities across Ontario, were noticing a spike in overdose deaths.

The Globe then began tracing the supply chain for the drug. It found that it originates in China, where chemical companies manufacture an illicit version of prescription fentanyl. These companies exist in plain view on the Internet, openly advertising the drugs they make. On the ground, we discovered a different story. A Globe reporter travelled to Wuhan in search of addresses posted online by a series of drug manufacturers, but the trail went cold. None of them could be found.

The trail was just as murky on this side of the Pacific. To try to gauge the size of the underground fentanyl market in Canada, The Globe compiled a database of the number of trafficking rings busted by police. This involved reviewing public-disclosure statements made by major police forces on anything involving fentanyl powder and pill-press machines smuggled into Canada from China.

Court documents relating to drug trafficking, including search warrants used by police, are usually sealed. But The Globe obtained documents relating to the sentencing and bail hearing for two drug dealers behind the country's first clandestine lab, in Montreal, providing a glimpse into how these operations produce fake prescription painkillers with fentanyl powder imported from China.

The result is a Globe and Mail report that paints a bleak picture of a street drug whose deadly fallout is only beginning to make itself felt.

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