Fentanyl: revolutionizing Canada’s illicit market for drugs

Meet the powerful synthetic opiate that’s putting thousands of Canadians at risk.

By Leah Ching, Editor-in-Chief

Fentanyl. Irene Miranda/ Flickr

Fentanyl. Irene Miranda/ Flickr

Earlier this summer, Vice Media released a feature film entitled “Dopesick: Fentanyl’s Deadly Grip.”  The film highlighted the rise in consumption of the synthetic opioid pain medicine known as fentanyl. While media coverage on fentanyl and its related deaths are increasing, many Canadians remain unaware about the drug and its effects.

Although the drug was developed during the 1960s, its insidious grip on Canada’s illicit drug market began to take hold only five years ago. What some are dubbing a “fentanyl crisis” dates back to 2012, when reports of prescription opiate addiction and overdose ran rampant throughout the country. As a result, the painkiller OxyContin was pulled from Canadian shelves in lieu of a safer alternative, OxyNeo. Since OxyContin’s disappearance, synthesized fentanyl, cut and mixed with other ingredients, has been disguised and sold as OxyContin on the illegal drug circuit. Canada’s west, particularly Alberta and British Columbia, have become major epicenters for fentanyl’s sale.

Fentanyl, in its many forms, has been killing Canadians at an alarming rate. In British Columbia and Alberta, The Globe and Mail reports the number of known fentanyl-linked deaths surged from 42 in 2012 to 418 in 2015.

In itself, fentanyl is a fast acting synthetic opioid painkiller. Both potent and highly addictive, it is prescribed to persons with chronic and severe pain. The drug has many uses within the medical realm, and for people suffering with chronic pain, it has the ability to greatly improve quality of life.

On the legal pharmaceutical market, there are pills, lozenges, and throat sprays. The most popular form of the drug is a topical patch which is applied and releases low doses of the drug slowly, over the course of two or three days. This patch method has been abused through scraping to the gel contents of the patch and then smoking or orally ingesting it all at once to produce a high.

Researchers at Health Canada and throughout the nation have dubbed the drug 50 times more toxic than heroin, and 100 times more toxic than morphine. As little as 2 mg can cause overdose and death. As far as prices go, a half-gram sample (more than enough for a powerful heroin-like high) goes for around $40 CAD.

According to the RCMP, most fentanyl on the Canadian market is mass-manufactured in China, and getting access to it from home is as easy as ordering a book online. Sellers conceal fentanyl in silica-desiccant packages and other decoy packages, such as inside of boxes of urine testing strips or boxes of generic vitamins. The drug makes its way to Canada after being produced in clandestine Chinese labs with little to no quality controls. Getting the dosage right is a challenge that makes the drug even more dangerous for consumers; there are no repercussions for manufacturers working in illegal production units overseas if something goes wrong.

According to Health Canada, as much as a grain of salt sized dosage of fentanyl is enough to trigger a heroin-like high. A dosage the size of two grains of salt is enough to kill a healthy adult. To dilute the drug, laboratories cut it with powdered sugar, baby powder, or over-the-counter antihistamines. It has also been mixed into other drugs such as heroin, cocaine, and ecstasy. Fentanyl-laced pills are also made to look like OxyContin by being packed, dyed green, and stamped with an “80.”

In Canada, the rates of fentanyl consumption are high and rising. According to the United Nations, no other country in the world consumes more prescription opioids on a per-capita basis. The black market demand for these drugs are extremely high, and the concealment of these drugs across borders is surprisingly easy. Fentanyl is said by many to be revolutionizing the drug trade. Little infrastructure is needed to become a fentanyl dealer, with a kilogram (about the size of a small cantaloupe) selling on the streets in Calgary for $20 million.

Many recreational drug users, attempting to buy OxyContin and other drugs, are actually buying fentanyl without knowing the risks that come with it. In B.C., pink heroin laced with fentanyl has been responsible for 16 known overdoses this year. Many users think that they are taking Percocet, ecstasy, or cocaine, without knowing the risks they are taking by ingesting such a potent and addictive substance.

Just this summer, seventeen-year-old Jack Bodie from Vancouver died after ingesting fake Oxycontin laced with the drug. Two weeks before, a North Vancouver couple were both found dead, leaving behind an orphaned two-year-old son. Both families of the victims described them as recreational drug users.

Canada’s high rates of opiate abuse is a problem that has consistently failed to be addressed by government officials and policy makers. A large problem hails with the inefficiencies and lack of abilities to control the influx of the drug at the border. In Thunder Bay, fentanyl-laced cocaine, and the existence of illegal fentanyl patches, have already been discovered by police; they warn that the influx is expected to continue.

Offering opinions about the rise of fentanyl consumption, fourth-year nursing student Jacquie Wood said to The Argus, “Failure to address opioid abuse and help people break out of their addictions are some of the Canadian healthcare system’s biggest failures. The issue of opioid abuse in Canada is akin to a gaping wound that we’re putting a Band-Aid on and hoping it goes away. The statistics show that the problem is getting worse and worse. We’re already seeing more overdoses related to fentanyl, and if not dealt with, it will soon grow into a problem that’s too big to ignore.”
Another nursing student in Wood’s year, Stephanie Graham, offered the following thoughts: “Lots of students come to university and play with the idea of experimenting with recreational drugs. At this point, it shouldn’t be taboo that we talk about it openly. Students are going to parties and clubs, and some are already intoxicated when they decide to accept drugs from a friend or acquaintance.” Ingesting a drug more potent than heroin or morphine is probably not what any student is looking for when they choose to do a small line of cocaine, or try MDMA for the first time. It’s hard to be safe when drugs when you don’t truly know what you’re putting into your body. I can’t speak for other students, but knowing the risk is enough of a deterrent for me.”

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