A powerful animal tranquilizer that is being cut into heroin in the United States, resulting in a spate of overdose deaths, is spreading across Canada.
Winnipeg Police announced on Thursday that lab tests have confirmed that drugs seized two weeks ago contain carfentanil, a synthetic opioid used to tranquilize large animals such as elephants. The drug is about 10,000 times more potent than morphine and has no known safe application for human use. An amount smaller than a grain of salt can kill a person. Dealers add it to drugs to enhance the high.
The Winnipeg seizure is the third time carfentanil has turned up in Canada, and the latest grim symptom of this country's opioid epidemic. In May and June, the Canada Border Services Agency intercepted two separate shipments of carfentanil, including a package containing just over a kilogram of the white powder, from the Vancouver international mail centre. The package, declared as printer accessories, originated in China and was destined for a residential address in Calgary.
Winnipeg police officers raided a hotel room in the city's west end on Sept. 12 and seized what they believe is carfentanil with a street value of $30,000. Winnipeg Police Service deputy chief Danny Smyth announced the results of the lab tests at a news conference on Thursday, adding that illegal drug trafficking streams typically move from west to east across Canada.
"You can usually see the wave coming," he said. "We're catching up a little bit."
The arrival of carfentanil has put police and public health officials on high alert. Joss Reimer, medical officer of health for Manitoba, said at the news conference that the province is already dealing with a surge in overdose deaths linked to the painkiller fentanyl.
A Globe and Mail investigation found that most of Canada's illicit fentanyl supply is manufactured in China, bought online, smuggled into the country and then cut into a range of street drugs. Because of its high potency, traffickers need only a small quantity to pocket lucrative profits. Canadian border guards cannot open packages weighing less than 30 grams without the consent of the recipient.
Carfentanil is 100 times more toxic than fentanyl, posing an unprecedented threat to public health. Dr. Reimer said hospital emergency departments, fire departments and paramedic services have been asked to watch for overdoses linked to the drug.
"The risk of overdose is incredibly high," Dr. Reimer said.
The potency of carfentanil means that significantly more doses of the antidote naloxone may be required to reverse the effects of an overdose, she said.
Between Jan. 1 and Sept. 23 , the Winnipeg Fire and Paramedic Service used naloxone on 472 patients who had overdosed, according to figures provided to The Globe. That compares with 348 patients in all of 2015.
Earlier this year, the Winnipeg service gave all its firefighters and primary care paramedics naloxone kits, a spokeswoman said.
Overdoses from carfentanil have soared in Ohio and neighbouring U.S. states. In a six-day period alone in August, 174 people across Cincinnati were hospitalized for overdosing on heroin that was likely laced with carfentanil.
Winnipeg police said they are not aware of any deaths in the city related to carfentanil.