The amount of fentanyl reaching Canada has skyrocketed over the last four months, with border officials seizing an unprecedented number of packages containing the deadly synthetic opioid, much of it postmarked from China.
According to new numbers provided exclusively to VICE News by the Canada Border Services Agency, officials have seized fentanyl 32 times at various ports of entry across the country from May until last Friday.
Those seizures add up to 8.46 kg worth of fentanyl—enough to produce more than 8.4 million pills at an estimated potential street value of $169 million (CAD).
More than half was seized at the Vancouver International Mail Centre, and originated from China or Hong Kong. British Columbia is currently under a state of emergency over the opioid crisis, and the death toll related to fentanyl is expected to reach 800 by the end of this year. Five of those seizures are marked as containing zero grams of fentanyl, with one specified as containing fentanyl residue.
The data highlights a vulnerability in North America's fight against the wave of opioid deaths: bootleg fentanyl and its analogues arriving on the doorstep of Canada and the United States by mail.
In the western Canadian city of Calgary alone, police seized fentanyl around 34 times last year, including one bust that yielded more than 11,000 pills. Officers with the drug unit say most of what they find is coming from China.
(Jane Kim/VICE Canada)
Nationally, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police has seized more than 30,000 "doses" and 22.8 kg of fentanyl from August of 2014 to August of this year. Although they have not disclosed the point of origin, the force is teaming up with the United Nations and China to stem the influx of the opioid into Canada.
Lawmakers in Canada have yet to formally confront the fentanyl importation problem, though British Columbia Premier Christy Clark wants border agents to search all small packages, even envelopes, for the deadly substance.
In the United States, a group of senators urged the Obama administration to adopt stricter standards around packages shipped into the US from abroad by private carriers.
"A million packages a day are coming into American communities without the electronic data law enforcement needs to target them," warned advocacy group Americans for Securing All Packages in a statement, noting that parcels from abroad are not subject to the same electronic screening procedures as those shipped by private carriers.
"As we work to fight the opioid epidemic, we can't ignore an obvious pipeline of illicit goods coming into our country."
Canada's border agency is on track to seize almost as much fentanyl this year as it has over the last six years combined. From 2010 to April of this year, fentanyl in its various forms was seized a total of 84 times. Patches and pills make up a large chunk of those seizures. After China, the most popular country of origin for those packages was the United States.
Until May of this year, Canadian border authorities lumped fentanyl seizures into a larger category of "other controlled drugs," and did not keep separate statistics on the synthetic opioid. A spokesperson declined a request for an interview from VICE News for this story, but said in an email Monday that the agency decided to begin isolating fentanyl in seizure statistics in May "to facilitate the process of collecting statistical information specific to Fentanyl."
(Jane Kim/VICE Canada)
The data from the last four months provides further evidence that the opioid problem is not confined to western jurisdictions, which have received most of the attention in Canada.
For instance, border agents seized 1.2 kg of fentanyl at the Toronto mail centre marked from Hong Kong, and another 57.8 grams of fentanyl from the Netherlands was seized at the Halifax Marine Operations.
Calgary Police Staff Sgt. Martin Schiavetta says his team frequently works with Canadian border services to attempt to stop the flow of packages containing fentanyl before they reach their destination.
In August, Calgary police and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police conducted a joint operation after a border services officer at the Vancouver International Mail Centre seized a package of fentanyl that was disguised as containing a muffler. In the end, a Calgary man was charged with importing a controlled substance.
But the nature of the drug makes it difficult to spot every package containing it, and local police forces have no jurisdiction when it comes to what gets seized by the Canada Border Services Agency.
"Maybe [border services] does not have the equipment or personnel to deal with them," said Schiavetta. "It takes very little fentanyl to make a lot it, and that's the problem."
With files from Michael Robinson
Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne