Alarm af­ter Canada car­fen­tanil bust

Cache of 42kg of opi­oid ‘10,000 times more toxic than mor­phine’

The Guardian Weekly - - International news - Ashifa Kas­sam Toronto

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).

Alamy

Dan­ger zone … a foren­sic sci­en­tist pro­cesses seized nar­cotics

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