As fentanyl continues to kill Canadians in record numbers, the RCMP and other agencies have been targeting traffickers mailing the deadly drug to Canada from China.
But a new report from Canada’s Border Services Agency (CBSA) warns a worrying trend has materialized in Canada’s eastern provinces. Smugglers are now using commercial vehicles and private cars to bring the deadly drug into Canada, spawning an “emerging threat” in Canada’s eastern provinces.
“No seizure data points directly to the smuggling of powders via the land border. However, a combination of various influencing factors suggests that is very likely to be occurring,” said the December 2017 CBSA Intelligence Brief, disclosed through an Access to Information request.
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The CBSA highlighted a series of massive drug busts in New York and New Jersey last fall with one seizure netting more than 100 kg of fentanyl, and fentanyl mixed with other street drugs. Determined to be the largest fentanyl seizure in U.S. history, it was enough to kill 32-million people, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
“The sheer volume of fentanyl pouring into the city is shocking,” Bridget G. Brennan, New York City’s special narcotics prosecutor said at the time. “The city is used as a hub of regional distribution for a lethal substance that is taking thousands of lives throughout the northeast.”
Fentanyl, believed to be 100 times stronger than morphine, is often cut with other street drugs often without the user’s knowledge.
“This quantity exceeds the U.S. domestic demand, indicating an international market, likely including Canada,” the report said, warning the shipments could flood across land borders in Ontario and Quebec.
Yves Goupil, RCMP’s director of serious and organized crime, said while fentanyl shipments have typically been intercepted through postal and cargo routes at the Vancouver International Mail Centre, Mounties are monitoring the situation closely.
“It is very possible that fentanyl could be coming in from the U.S. through Mexico,” Goupil told Global News. “It’s something that we are definitely looking at more specifically.”
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Goupil said the RCMP is working with China, Mexico and Europe to disrupt drug shipments on the ground and online.
“There are so many routes that the traffickers can use that we are liaising with a lot of our international partners around the world,” he said. “You cannot buy 100 kgs of cocaine from Colombia on the internet. With fentanyl, we see a lot of the trafficking and the shipping is all done through the dark web.”
The CBSA report warns the profitability of the drug continues to drive the fentanyl trade. Just one kilogram of the lethal opioid costs around C$5,000 and can produce one-million pills, generating up to $10 million in profits. It would take roughly 50 kg of heroin to equal that return, according to the agency.
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‘It’s the same routes that Mexican traffickers are using’
U.S. officials said the arrests in New York are an indication Mexican cartels are using existing smuggling chains for street drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine to transport staggering quantities of fentanyl from Mexico.
“Mexican traffickers have established cells in Buffalo, Plattsburg and Rochester. They could definitely be supplying organizations in Canada with the same types of drugs that are coming into New York City,” DEA special agent Erin Mulvey told Global News.
“New York has supplied Canada with cocaine and heroin. With fentanyl, it’s got the same routes that are already established. It’s the same routes that Mexican traffickers are using,” she said.
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Nearly 500 pounds (227 kg) of pure fentanyl was seized in New York City in 2017, according to the DEA, a dramatic increase from the 35 pounds seized in 2016.
“All of our stats are indicating that the amount of fentanyl has been increasing in the last three years,” Mulvey said.
Kelly Sundberg, an associate professor of justice studies at Mount Royal University, said fentanyl trafficking at land crossings are a “weak link” in Canada’s border security.
“Fentanyl is such a potent drug that the small quantities make that much more difficult for border service to identify yet when they do get it into the country, a small package goes a long way,” said Sundberg, who previously worked as a CBSA officer for 15 years.
“It’s the adaptive nature of criminals,” he said. “As the CBSA bolsters their efforts at mail centres, the criminals know that, so they alter their strategy and they have identified land borders.”
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How fentanyl gets to Canada
The supply chain for fentanyl and its deadly analogues – including carfentanil – begins in China where chemical companies design custom variations of the drug to be shipped to Canada and the U.S. Online retailers can send the drug and its precursors concealed in packages labelled as household cleaning products or other innocuous items.
Last year, the federal government passed Bill C-37, which allowed authorities to stop the importation of devices used to manufacture illicit opioids and gave border officers the ability to open international mail weighing 30 grams or less.
CBSA spokesperson Nicholas Dorion said as agents continue to intercept shipments of fentanyl coming into Canada, concealment methods are evolving.
“The majority of fentanyl seizures by the CBSA are made in the mail mode but it is important to note that fentanyl has been seized in other operations and in other modes,” Dorion said in an email.
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Meanwhile, the opioid crisis continues to devastate families on both sides of the border. New numbers from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) found nearly 3,987 apparent opioid-related deaths in 2017, an increase of 34 per cent from the year before.
The data also found that 92 per cent of the deaths were accidental, and the vast majority – 72 per cent – involved fentanyl or fentanyl analogues. Non-opioid drugs were also involved in about 71 per cent of accidental opioid overdose deaths, according to PHAC.
The opioid crisis has hit B.C., hardest, which recorded 1,399 deaths in 2017, up from 974 recorded in 2016. It also has the highest rate of deaths in Canada, at 29 per 100,000 people.
Goupil said fentanyl and its deadly analogues will continue to be a priority for police agencies in Canada in the months and years to come.
“I don’t think it’s going to stop in the very near future,” he said. “I see this, unfortunately, a problem that will keep going up until the demand decreases.”
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