What is carfentanil? Deadly street drug is causing mass overdoses in the US

Click to play video: 'New drug carfentanil seized at Vancouver airport'
New drug carfentanil seized at Vancouver airport
The super powerful drug carfentanil was seized by the CBSA in Vancouver. It is 100 times more powerful than fentanyl. Catherine Urquhart has more – Aug 9, 2016

It’s heroin laced with elephant tranquilizers, and 100 times more potent than fentanyl. Carfentanil, a new synthetic drug hitting U.S. streets, is causing “mass overdoses,” according to American health officials.

Just a few granules of the synthetic opioid are enough to be lethal, drug enforcement officials warn. In the past few weeks, several states have grappled with hundreds of overdoses.

In a single weekend, Cincinnati recorded 30 overdoses, followed by another 78, along with three deaths within a 48-hour period in the subsequent days.

Cleveland saw 52 overdose deaths in August, with some tied to carfentanil. In Akron, another 24 overdoses were documented in a single day alone. Similar reports are pouring in from Indiana, West Virginia, and Kentucky.

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“It’s very dangerous,” Tim Ingram, Hamilton County’s health commissioner, told Global News.

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In his 20 years as health commissioner, Ingram said he’s never encountered so many overdoses within such a short time frame. There were over 200 overdoses in a single week.

He said emergency responders, police, and firefighters on the ground have had their hands full dealing with the crisis, while frontline hospital workers are managing an influx of patients.

“It’s unprecedented for us here. It’s just been completely surprising to us and we’ve learned a great deal as we’ve done our best to help first responders and the health-care system,” he told Global.

“This is a pivotal point. We’re now seeing a move from what I call organic heroin … to this new era of synthetic drugs and they’re faster to market, appear to be cheaper, and they’re very, very powerful. This is perhaps a new beginning, if you will,” he warned.

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Health Canada, for its part, is ramping up efforts to tame the “crisis” it’s seeing within our borders.

“Health Canada is deeply concerned about the growing number of opioid-related overdoses and deaths associated with street drugs, such as illicitly produced fentanyl, as well as pharmaceutical opioids, in British Columbia, as well in other parts of Canada,” the department said in a statement to Global News.

What is carfentanil?

Carfentanil is a synthetic opioid that’s grouped with heroin, fentanyl and oxycodone.

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Ingram said that depending on the drug’s purity, carfentanil can be:

  • 100 times more potent than fentanyl
  • 10,000 times more potent than morphine
  • 4,000 times more potent than heroin

“Carfentanil is an analogue of fentanyl with an analgesic potency 10,000 times that of morphine and is used in veterinary practice to immobilize certain large animals,” the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says on its website.

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“Carfentanil is intended for large-animal use only as its extreme potency makes it inappropriate for use in humans,” the National Library of Medicine explains in its compound summary for the drug.

It looks like table salt, but just a few granules is enough to trigger a fatal overdose, DEA spokesman Russ Baer told TIME.

Frontline emergency responders have to wear gloves and masks to protect themselves from accidentally ingesting even miniscule amounts of the substance.

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Officials told TIME that their guess is that carfentanil is making its way into the U.S. from China by way of South America or Mexico.

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Is carfentanil in Canada?

It’s slowly making its way into the country based on media reports. Last month, RCMP inspectors charged a Calgary man after they intercepted a one-kilogram package of the drug.

“One kilogram of carfentanil can produce approximately 50 million fatal doses that could’ve hit our streets,” Insp. Allan Lai said at the time.

READ MORE: Police intercept deadly opioid carfentanil as 50 million doses could’ve hit Alberta streets

“It is unsure as to what the use of this was going to be when it was brought into our community,” he said.

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The parcel was sent from China and destined for a Calgary address. It was marked as “printing accessories.”

Health Canada, the CBSA, and the B.C. Centre for Disease Control have not yet responded to a request for comment from Global News.

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