Manufactured in China, it easily crosses our porous borders, triggering a heroin-like bliss in users – and, all too often, death. The Globe investigates the rise of a fatal opioid. It’s as easy as ordering a book online: Sign up for an account, choose a method of payment, and receive the package in three to four business days.
But first, there are some choices to make. The fentanyl hydrochloride comes in a variety of quantities, ranging from a half-gram sample for $35 (U.S) to a kilogram for $21,000. It also comes in different strengths – purchasers are warned to “be careful” and do their research on the product, described as 99-per-cent pure. And of course, there are the related pharmaceutical products: the fentanyl patches, tablets and even lollipops.
Fentanyl is an opioid, a class of painkillers that also includes oxycodone and morphine. Prescription-grade fentanyl is up to 100 times more toxic than morphine. Developed in 1959 by a Belgian chemist, it was quickly adopted as a pain reliever and anesthetic in medical settings. It came into widespread use in the mid-1990s with the introduction of the transdermal patch that releases the drug into the patient’s bloodstream over two or three days. When the drug is processed in a clandestine lab with no quality controls, it is difficult to get the dosage right, making it potentially much more dangerous.
The supply chain for illicit fentanyl begins in China, but the problems Canada is experiencing start right here at home: No other country in the world consumes more prescription opioids on a per-capita basis, according to a recent United Nations report.
Police across Canada have shut down 20 fentanyl labs since that first major bust in April, 2013, mostly operated by organized-crime groups, according to a Globe review. The biggest raids were in B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan. Police have also made dozens of busts involving illicit fentanyl and the prescription-grade patches. This week, police charged a doctor and a pharmacist from the Toronto area with participating in a fentanyl trafficking ring.