Alarm after Canada carfentanil bust
Cache of 42kg of opioid ‘10,000 times more toxic than morphine’
It was a carbon monoxide alarm that brought the Canadian authorities to the house in Liatris Drive, a quiet residential street. As firefighters checked over the house to ensure its inhabitants were safe, something else caught their eye: kilograms of a mysterious powder in the basement.
Soon afterwards, the police arrived at the house in Pickering, near Toronto, with a search warrant. They seized 33 handguns – and 53kg of the unidentified white and yellow powder.
Lab tests eventually revealed 42kg of the substance to be carfentanil – a drug the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has described as “crazy dangerous” and that authorities in the US have flagged as a potential chemical weapon. The local police force had unwittingly stumbled across what is believed to be the largest volume of the opioid ever seized in North America.
Developed in the 1970s as a tranquiliser for large animals such as elephants and bears, the synthetic opioid has also been studied as a potential chemical weapon by countries including the US, China and Israel. It is thought to have been deployed with disastrous effects when Russian special forces attempted to rescue hundreds of hostages from a Moscow theatre in 2002.
But it only burst into public view last year after officials across North America began to warn that it was being cut with heroin and other illicit drugs, leaving a rash of overdoses and deaths in its wake.
“An amount as small as a grain of sand can kill you,” Dr Karen Grimsrud, Alberta’s chief medical officer, told reporters after traces of carfentanil were found in the bodies of two men who had overdosed. “Carfentanil is about 100 times more toxic than fentanyl and about 10,000 times more toxic than morphine.”
Authorities in Cincinnati said the drug was one possible explanation for why 174 people in the US city had overdosed in the span of six days. Dealers were cutting carfentanil into heroin and other drugs to offer users a hard-hitting, longer-lasting high, officials said as they scrambled to shore up supplies of the antidote. While it often takes just one or two shots of naloxone to counteract a heroin overdose, those involving carfentanil can take half a dozen shots or more.
Authorities were already grappling with the effects of fentanyl – carfentanil’s chemical cousin – a less potent opioid that has claimed thousands of lives on both sides of the border.
The use of carfentanil by dealers is complicated by a lack of information regarding potency, said Hakique Virani, a Canadian doctor who specialises in addiction medicine. “The fact that we can’t say how much carfentanil equals fentanyl makes it that much more unpredictable and that much more of a dangerous hazard,” he said.
He pointed to North America’s crackdown on drugs to explain dealers’ willingness to embrace carfentanil, which can boost the effects of heroin in just minuscule amounts. “It’s quite necessary in a prohibition environment for drug traffickers to move towards more toxic, smaller chemicals because they’re much easier to traffic,” said Virani.
While the investigation into the 42kg seized recently in Canada is ongoing, police have said the amount could have yielded as many as 420,000 doses of carfentanil with an estimated street value of C$13m ($10m).
Danger zone … a forensic scientist processes seized narcotics