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Why fentanyl and W-18 are here to stay

On a sunny May morning in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, it takes just eight minutes to find a fentanyl dealer. “Alan,” who speaks on the condition his real name not be reported, says he has customers who seek it exclusively.

On a sunny May morning in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, it takes just eight minutes to find a fentanyl dealer.

“Alan,” who speaks on the condition his real name not be reported, says he has customers who seek it exclusively.

For $30 to $80, he’ll sell patches of Teva or Ratio brand fentanyl, which doctors typically prescribe for relief of chronic, acute pain in cancer patients.

Or, for $40 to $60, an addict can score a “point” (0.1 gram) worth of fentanyl powder, ready to be cooked and injected.

Alan — who deals drugs to pay for his own addiction — says fentanyl is in “pretty much” everything sold on the street these days.

But how do Alan and other street dealers end up with fentanyl, a potentially lethal painkiller designed for patients in agony?

Climb up the chain of distribution and the answer turns up quickly: The Internet.

Sgt. Darin Sheppard, from the RCMP’s E-Division, said his synthetic drug operations department first received fentanyl reports in 2014.

“We were initially tasked with locating the source,” Sheppard said.

Mounties discovered almost all the fentanyl was arriving in its pure, powder form, from China. Once it was smuggled into Canada through parcels and larger packages, it would be diluted or cut for street use. The rest is manufactured locally in clandestine laboratories.

“People have access to mainland China that would never have had that type of access 10 or 15 years ago, to go right to the source,” Sheppard said.

“(With) traditional heroin imports they would have the person in Canada doing the importing, they would have a mediator, they would have somebody in the source country. But all that has been taken care of by the Internet and the accessibility it provides.”

The Internet has done for drug dealers what Amazon has done for book readers.

Postmedia News, using a pseudonym, used global-trade websites and a Gmail account to correspond with seven online vendors who said they would ship fentanyl to Vancouver.

Because it would be illegal to follow through with a transaction, the validity of these vendors’ proposals can’t be confirmed, nor can the purity of their products be tested.

But one vendor in China, who identified himself as Sandeep, wrote that he would ship a kilogram of powdered fentanyl for $1,800 US, plus $35 for shipping.

Sandeep wrote that he accepted Western Union transfers, bank transfers and Bitcoin. He claimed 97 per cent of his shipments arrive at their destination.

“Stuff is wrapped into an oily plastic, no smell, no X-ray penetration and cannot be (detected) even with the ION scanner,” he wrote, explaining how his shipments defeat customs inspections.

“Then packaged into a PlayStation or Xbox carton so buyer receives stuff as though receiving a newly ordered game. We do also send customized packages (diplomatic sealed) which evade all custom checks.”

The other vendors offered similar pricing and shipping arrangements.

RCMP have shut down three fentanyl labs in B.C., along with a half-dozen tableting operations, said Sheppard, adding the labs are run by longtime drug dealers.

But there’s “no doubt” that cracking down on fentanyl imports has been a difficult task, he added.

“Because of the toxicity of fentanyl and the very small quantity of pure product needed to produce a very large number of actual doses, that’s obviously a challenge,” he said.

“It’s not in the traditional sense of a large cocaine import, where they would have 40 or 50 kilos of cocaine, or a large heroin import of 20 or 25 unit. Now, that same number of dosages can be compressed into what would fit into a measuring cup.”

The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) has stopped numerous fentanyl imports.

In July, 2015, for example, agents at the Vancouver International Mail Centre stopped a parcel destined for Calgary that was declared as a muffler. Inside the muffler was a white powder that turned out to be fentanyl. A Calgary resident was charged.

Keith Weis, who runs the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration office responsible for Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Idaho, said fentanyl has shown up in the states neighbouring B.C. more frequently in the past five years.

“Essentially, we see that fentanyl is increasingly becoming more popular — mostly because of economic reasons. The precursors (chemical ingredients) are sent in from foreign countries such as China.”

Weis said there are a half-dozen precursor chemicals used in fentanyl production. The cost to make a kilogram can be as low as US$3,300.

“But once it’s produced and then distributed on the street level, it can yield up to $1 million US,” he said.

DEA agents have mostly seen fentanyl cut into heroin and, more recently, in counterfeit OxyContin pills, Weis said.

Agents in Bellingham are working regularly with law enforcement partners along the border, including the RCMP.

“We are watching, very closely, developments in British Columbia,” Weis said.

“More and more intel is being passed that the precursors are being shipped into Canada, so we are working with everybody to look at those patterns.”

On Dec. 12, 2015, RCMP were advised by the CBSA that a piece of pharmaceutical equipment imported from overseas and destined for a Kelowna man, who was known to police, had been intercepted.

Three months later, RCMP raided a commercial property in West Kelowna where they seized 500 counterfeit Percocet and OxyContin pills, and 195 grams of powder suspected to be fentanyl.

Police also found a pair of industrial pill presses capable of producing 2,500 pills per hour and a chemical mixer “which showed significant signs of use.”

Inside a shop vacuum, they recovered another eight kilograms of suspected fentanyl powder.

Project Tainted, a joint operation between the Vancouver Police Department, federal RCMP and Burnaby RCMP launched in October 2014 and targeting drug traffickers in Metro Vancouver, resulted in eight arrests in February 2015.

Police seized 29,000 fentanyl pills, a pill press, half-a-million coloured pills of an unknown substance and more drugs, weapons and cash.

And Project Trooper was a seven-month Vancouver Police Department investigation, launched in September 2014, into a group distributing drugs to people in Vancouver, on Vancouver Island and in Alberta.

That led to police seizing more than 23,000 fentanyl pills, along with a stockpile of other drugs, weapons and $575,000 cash. A lengthy list of charges was approved against six accused.

In response to the fentanyl crisis, police have focused their efforts on finding those responsible for its importation, manufacture and distribution.

But despite major busts like these, it seems there’s no end in sight.

“We’re seizing hundreds of thousands of these pills,” said VPD spokesman Sgt. Randy Fincham.

“And it appears that when we take them off the street, there’s someone there to take their place.”

Synthetic research chemicals, created for scientific and medical research purposes, are abused by drug users for their psychoactive properties.

And W-18, one such chemical created at the University of Alberta in the early 1980s, may be the harbinger of great misery to come.

Little is known about W-18. Its formula sat collecting dust for decades, before traces of it turned up in Europe in 2013 and then Calgary last year. It’s believed to have painkilling properties and is estimated to be 50 to 100 times more powerful than fentanyl.

In April, the Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams (ALERT) announced it had seized four kilograms of W-18 in Edmonton.

This was concerning for police: That amount of W-18 could be used to create “hundreds of millions” of illicit pills, said Staff Sgt. Dave Knibbs.

To make matters worse, drug users and health-care professionals believe the overdose-reversing drug naloxone could be ineffective against something as toxic as W-18.

On May 13, Kelowna RCMP announced W-18 had turned up in pills it had seized in a recent bust.

And on May 20, the office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Alberta confirmed a 35-year-old Calgary man who died from an overdose in March had taken W-18, along with heroin and 3-methyl fentanyl, an even more toxic form of fentanyl.

It was the first reported case of a W-18-related overdose death in Canada.

The federal government wants to add W-18 to Schedule I of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, the same legal classification as drugs like heroin, cocaine and methamphetamines.

But as soon as that happens, W-15 could take its place. Or any of the 33 other research chemicals in the W series, along with countless other legal opioid analogues, research chemicals and designer drugs.

Drug users who frequent Internet forums already discuss the painkilling effects of acetyl-fentanyl, acryl-fentanyl, butyr-fentanyl and furanyl-fentanyl, along with MT-45, AH-7921 and U-47700.

As government works to pass bills banning possession and distribution of such substances, chemists in clandestine labs simply modify them or design new ones.

And just as with the online sale of fentanyl, Postmedia News was able to locate several research-chemical suppliers willing to ship W-18 to Vancouver.

James in Shanghai wrote that he’d ship a kilogram of W-18 for US$3,200. Professor Chen in Changzhou would do the same for US$2,785.

In the wake of a surge in fentanyl-related deaths in 2014, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control wanted to find out whether people were consuming it unknowingly.

To do this, the BCCDC conducted the fentanyl-urine screening study (FUSS) in February and March of 2015.

Drug users at 17 sites in B.C. completed anonymous questionnaires describing what drugs they’d used in the past three days, and provided urine samples, which were then tested.

After analyzing 242 surveys, FUSS researchers found that “Nearly 29 per cent of participants tested positive for fentanyl, 73 per cent of which did not report using fentanyl within the previous 3 days,” according to a report.

“This supports the hypothesis that fentanyl is being mixed into other substances, increasing the risk of overdose for people who do not use opioids.”

For example, researchers detected fentanyl in the urine of crystal methamphetamine users, too.

But W-18 can’t yet be detected so easily.

If drug users have it in their bodies, doctors often can’t tell. Whether it’s killing them, the coroner can’t be sure.

Alberta’s chief toxicologist Dr. Graham Jones said in a report that although W-18 was present in the Calgary man’s body, it couldn’t be confirmed as the cause of death because other drugs were present.

“In this case the quantity of W-18 was large enough to detect relatively easily, but a smaller quantity would have been much harder to identify,” he said.

“A preliminary screening test for W-18 does not exist at present and therefore it is not possible to detect in blood unless its presence is suspected.”

Dr. Seonaid Nolan, a clinician scientist at the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and addiction medicine physician at St. Paul’s Hospital, said the hospital’s doctors haven’t been specifically testing patients for presence of W-18.

But there have been some concerning cases.

“I have seen two patients in particular who have come through the emergency department whose urine drug screens have been negative for all opiates and opiate metabolites, but whose clinical presentation seemed consistent with an opiate overdose,” Nolan said.

“One patient in particular did require a long-term Narcan (naloxone) infusion for treatment of that.”

B.C.’s chief coroner, Lisa Lapointe, said there have been cases “highly suggestive” of an overdose, but the toxicology report has come back negative.

“We suspect that what’s happened in those situations is that there’s another fentanyl analogue, so it’s a synthetic opioid, a synthetic fentanyl, but it’s slightly different in its makeup, and our lab hasn’t been able to test for it yet,” Lapointe said.

But with W-18, Lapointe said one of the challenges is because it’s so strong, “the amount that would kill a person would be so small that the sensitivity to detect it is going to be very, very challenging. It’s terrifying.”

Hugh Lampkin, of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, doubts fentanyl and research chemicals like W-18 will ever go away.

Lampkin showed Postmedia News a $10 half-point of supposed street heroin he picked up one afternoon in May.

“Dollars to donuts, if you tested this, it’s 100-per-cent fentanyl,” Lampkin said as he opened the origami-like pink-paper flap of white powder.

“I have no doubts about it. I haven’t seen any real heroin on the street in a long time.”

Lampkin said dealers are drawn to fentanyl because they can carry it in smaller quantities but also because it doesn’t carry the same stigma as other Schedule 1 drugs such as heroin.

Trafficking in heroin typically earns a sentence of two years or more in prison, though a trafficker could face a maximum life sentence, he said.

“With fentanyl, even though it’s a Schedule 1, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to get the same penalty,” Lampkin said.

“First-time offenders, small-time offenders are probably going to just get a slap on the hand.”

David Karp, a Vancouver defence lawyer who specializes in drug-possession charges, said that because cases involving fentanyl are infrequent and relatively new, it’s difficult for him to confirm whether a charge of possession or trafficking would earn a lesser sentence than drugs such as heroin, cocaine or methamphetamines.

When fentanyl is used as a cutting agent in those drugs, Karp has seen federal Crown prosecutors actually treat it as an aggravating factor, he said.

“But if you’re talking about just by itself, like an Oxycodone, yeah — I don’t think that would be treated as seriously as heroin,” he said.

Still, it’s greed and a thriving black market that play the largest roles in the current crisis killing B.C. drug users, Lampkin believes.

“Right now, a kilo of heroin is probably around $60,000, whereas 100 grams of fentanyl makes 10 kilograms of fentanyl-heroin and each kilo is probably about $12,500,” he said.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what’s going on there.”