Many of the overdoses are linked to pharmaceutical-grade fentanyl that is diverted into the hands of street users, but police are finding that, increasingly, illicit fentanyl is also the culprit. This is overwhelmingly the case in British Columbia.
In response to demand from prescription-painkiller addicts as well as users of street drugs, traffickers are turning to a pharmaceutical-manufacturing giant to produce deadly, black-market versions of fentanyl, according to the RCMP.
The labs manufacture the main ingredient used in the production of fentanyl, as well as analogues — drugs that have chemical structures differing only slightly from the pharmaceutical-grade version. One of the best-known fentanyl analogues is alpha-methylfentanyl, known on the streets as China White.
On forums such as EC21 and WeiKu, transactions are conducted in English. The websites are available to anyone and signing up for an account takes minutes. The sites guarantee delivery and ask customers only for a shipping address and credit-card number.
Suppliers in China often conceal the fentanyl powder in silica packages placed alongside a pack of urine test strips. Another way they avoid seizure at the border is to gift-wrap the package or label it as household detergent with an accompanying certificate of analysis.
The Canada Border Services Agency inspects goods coming into the country through the mail system and by courier. But the agency is authorized to open only those packages weighing more than 30 grams and needs the supplier’s permission to open smaller ones.
A little fentanyl goes a long way, making it much more attractive and lucrative to traffickers than other street drugs. Courier packages, for example, typically range from the size of a stack of business cards to an iPhone box, according to the RCMP.
Fentanyl has been found hidden in a variety of cargoes, including farm machinery and car parts. But more often, the CBSA makes drug seizures through the postal system. Of the 10,990 general drug seizures the agency made in 2015, only 61 arrived in cargo shipments.
Organized-crime groups engaged in drug cartels, including the Hells Angels, are involved in trafficking, as well as individuals ordering fentanyl from their homes over the Internet. In Calgary, police are investigating so-called nominees – people paid to accept packages from a courier at their home or business on behalf of drug traffickers.
Three examples from 2015: A package of fentanyl declared as a muffler was stopped on its way to Calgary; a man in Brampton, Ont., was charged with importing more than 500 grams of the drug; and a parcel destined for Halifax was found to contain 514 grams, worth about $1-million.
Because illicit fentanyl and fentanyl analogues are so potent, the white powder is cut or mixed with other drugs and fillers, before it can be sold on the street. Most of the 21 clandestine labs dismantled by police since 2013 operated in British Columbia and Alberta, according to a Globe and Mail analysis.
To dilute the drug, the labs cut it with powdered sugar, baby powder or antihistamines. They also mix it into other drugs, such as heroin, or pack it into pills which are often made to look like OxyContin: dyed green and stamped with an “80” – the oxy dosage.
Fentanyl is often transported in vehicles outfitted with customized hidden compartments. Calgary is a key destination because, as well as having a large population, it serves as the drug gateway to southern Alberta, including the hard-hit community of Blood Tribe. Illicit opioid use is higher in the city compared with the provincial average.
The math works like this, according to Edmonton physician Hakique Virani: A kilogram of pure fentanyl powder costs $12,500. A kilo is enough to make 1,000,000 tablets. Each tab sells for $20 in major cities, for total proceeds of $20-million. In smaller markets, the street price is as high as $80.
Fentanyl affects not only people dependent on prescription opioids and severely addicted illicit-drug users, but also recreational users who are not aware that it has been cut into their drugs. Emergency rooms in Calgary have reported overdose victims ranging from teenagers in affluent areas to poverty-stricken seniors.
The first known fentanyl seizure in Canada was from a clandestine lab in Montreal in April, 2013. Since then, police have busted traffickers in almost every province and the Northwest Territories, for a total of 58 across the country, according to The Globe’s analysis.
“It’s not going to get better any time soon, I don’t think,” says Sergeant Darin Sheppard of the RCMP in Surrey, B.C. “We’re taking some of the right steps to slow it down, but there are a lot of communities that are just starting to experience the fentanyl issue.”
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Reporting by Karen Howlett in Toronto, Andrea Woo in Vancouver, Nathan Vanderklippe in Beijing, and Justin Giovannetti in Edmonton; Graphics and illustrations by Trish McAlaster; Writing by Karen Howlett; Design and development by Michael Pereira; Multimedia editing by Laura Blenkinsop; Video editing by Melissa Tait; Editing by Chris Wilson-Smith; Copyediting by Lisan Jutras and Jerry Johnson