The pill looks perfect. A smooth green shell stamped with the familiar characters: CDN 80. You can even crack it open and the powder inside is white — just like it's supposed to be. It looks just like an oxycodone pill. But it isn't. It's fentanyl, one of the deadliest drugs in Canada.
In its purest form, which looks like icing sugar, fentanyl is almost impossibly deadly. A lethal dose — just two milligrams — is nearly too small to see, and can be absorbed through the skin. But despite the risks, importing and selling fentanyl has become one of the fastest-growing industries in the illicit Canadian drug trade.
"With cocaine, Joe Blow can't call up El Chapo or the Sinaloa cartel and say, 'I'd like a kilo of coke, please'," says Cpl. Eric Boechler, E Division Clandestine Lab Enforcement and Response Team. "With fentanyl, you can go online and buy it from labs in China. We're seeing guys who would normally never be involved in mid-level drug trafficking being able to acquire it."
Fentanyl is an opiate that's 80 times more powerful than morphine and 50 times more powerful than heroin. The drug is prescribed as a painkiller, usually to those living with chronic cancer pain. Illicitly, though, it's imported, cut down to a tolerable dose and sold, sometimes as counterfeit heroin, but more often as fake oxycodone pills.
Fakes and copies
It's a lucrative business, since one kilogram of pure fentanyl can be cut into a hundred kilograms of fake heroin or hundreds of thousands of knock-off painkillers. The drug is so cheap, virtually every pill sold on the street today stamped as a CDN 80 oxycodone tablet actually contains fentanyl.
In fact, the familiar CDN 80 stamp — which used to indicate genuine oxycodone — now marks only the fake pills. Due to widespread recreational drug use, the pharmaceutical company that manufactures oxycodone in Canada changed its formula and its stamp.
"It's not just hardcore drug users who are using it," says Boechler. "There was a middle-class couple in their thirties, Amelia and Hardy Leighton. They lived in North Vancouver with a two-year-old kid. They fatally overdosed, and now they're both gone."
Fentanyl and many of its analogs (chemicals with near-identical structure and effects) are controlled substances in Canada. Most illicit fentanyl originates from labs in China, which copy chemical formulas from patents filed by pharmaceutical companies.
Drug traffickers can also import the chemical W-18 or its analogs, which aren't currently illegal, despite their ability to cause a similar opiate effect to fentanyl. Either way, drug traffickers will then use pharmaceutical-grade equipment to press and coat the chemicals to create their fake oxycodone pills.
"There's a lot going on to fight back," says Boechler. "National HQ is taking the lead and Occupational Health and Safety is developing guidelines for dealing with it safely — seizure and storage of exhibits, keeping police service dogs safe, executing warrants. We're constantly working with other agencies, both nationally and internationally to stay on top of this issue."
Fentanyl overdoses have steadily increased over the last four years. In British Columbia, one of the epicentres of the fentanyl trade, there were only 13 deaths in 2012. In 2015, there were 146.
Naloxone, a drug used to counter the deadly effects of fentanyl, is becoming a commonplace item aboard ambulances in western Canada.
The drug currently requires a prescription, but it is expected to become deregulated in the next few months. That change, combined with the future approval of a nasal spray version of the drug, will help make it more accessible to officers in the field.
"My team and I were at a clandestine lab in Langley when a car broke containment," says Boechler. "It ripped up to us, and there was a guy in the backseat who had overdosed on fentanyl. He still had a pulse but wasn't breathing — he was going to be dead in minutes. We had an ambulance there and EMS was able to use naloxone. The ambulance crews were telling him, 'You were dead,' and here he is, walking around — a little kit of naloxone is what saved his life."
Both Boechler and Andrew McKechnie, an RCMP occupational safety officer, agree that while the drug is dangerous, members can keep themselves safe by following simple procedures.
Wearing full safety gear with a respirator and doubled-up nitrile gloves, avoiding skin contact and always investigating possible drug scenes with two officers are some of their recommendations.
They also noted that the most common presumptive field tests — NIK and NARK test kits — cannot be used to detect fentanyl with absolute certainty. In general, the safest practice is to treat all unknown drugs as if they could be fentanyl.
"It's out there, and there's the potential for danger," says McKechnie. "Anecdotally, I've heard about some police officer exposures to it, but even across North America, I haven't seen any fatalities. You need to be careful, but for
the vast majority of general duty members, the chances of encountering it are very low."
Although the problem is growing, the RCMP, the government, and other agencies across North America are committed to combating the problem. In Canada, legislation to regulate pharmaceutical equipment (like pill presses) and prevent the import of more analogs is underway. More training and equipment for members will help keep investigators in the field safe.
"People are terrified of the fentanyl issue, and to some degree rightfully so," says Boechler. "I used to be terrified of it as well — but I'm not any more. I respect it. I'm very careful in what I do, and I'm still kicking around."
Reprinted with permission from the Pony Express (No. 2, 2016).