Fentanyl’s many deadly cousins

Fentanyl-related drugs and other designer-highs have been turning up on the streets faster than they can be made illegal

Fentanyl pills are shown in a handout photo. Police say organized crime groups have been sending a potentially deadly drug through British Columbia to Alberta and Saskatchewan using hidden compartments in vehicles. (Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams/CP)

Fentanyl pills are shown in a handout photo. Police say organized crime groups have been sending a potentially deadly drug through British Columbia to Alberta and Saskatchewan using hidden compartments in vehicles. (Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams/CP)

The fight against illicit fentanyl has kicked up a notch with Friday’s announcement of a new partnership between the RCMP and Chinese authorities. But slowing the flow of deadly synthetic opioids from China’s drug labs will be no simple task. There are well over 100 websites offering designer drugs for sale to international clients. And their chemists are coming up with new, uncontrolled variants of the ultra-powerful highs faster than they can be made illegal.

In the fall of 2015, China added 116 designer drugs to its list of controlled substances, including 19 fentanyl analogues. But more than a dozen fentanyl cousins remain legal and several continue to be openly manufactured and sold.

Here’s a partial list of the deadly fentanyl-related drugs and other designer-highs that have been turning up on North America’s streets.

Carfentanil: Used to tranquilize elephants and other large animals, this drug can be up to 100 times more powerful than fentanyl and deadly in amounts as tiny as 20 micrograms—smaller than a grain of sand. This past summer Canada Border Services officers in Vancouver intercepted a one-kilogram package of carfentanil—enough for 50 million lethal doses— being shipped from China to Calgary. And it has since turned up on the streets of Vancouver, Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton and has been implicated in at least two Alberta deaths.

W-18: Said to be 1,000 times more powerful than morphine, this compound was developed and patented by University of Alberta scientists in 1981, part of a series of powerful painkillers, labelled W-1 through W-32. So little is known about it that there is debate about whether it is even technically an opioid, although Canada is moving to add it to the banned list regardless. More than three dozen seizures have been made across the country, from British Columbia to Ontario, since the beginning of 2016.

U-47700: Known on the streets as “Pink,” “Pinky,” or “U4,” it’s not as powerful as fentanyl , but is still eight times more potent than heroin. In the last year, it has caused dozens of deaths across the United States and was classified as a controlled substance by the United States DEA on Nov. 14.

AH-7921: Developed by British researchers in the 1970s, this opioid has been growing in popularity across Europe, Asia and North America since it first appeared for sale on the web in 2012. So far, it has been linked to at least two deaths in Canada, and was added to the Controlled Drug and Substances Act in June.

MT-45: Patented in Japan in 1975, this drug is also a potent pain reliever, but very little is known about its effects as there were no human studies. It was implicated in 28 deaths in Sweden in 2013-14, and at least two more in the United States. Canada made it a controlled substance in June.

Furanylfentanyl: Not quite as potent as fentanyl, but deadly all the same. “Fu-fen” as it is called on the streets, has been linked to a number of deaths in North Carolina. Earlier this month, police in London, Ont., charged a 28-year-old man with importing 10 grams of the drug from China.


Fentanyl’s many deadly cousins

  1. This article makes it seem that illicit and foreign supplies are the root of the problem when the largest part of the problem is opioids diverted from the legal/commercial drug supply and is substantially rooted in overuse and over-prescription of these drugs. Prescriptions written for multiples of maximum recommended dosage have been reported as common in Canada while a lack of centralized information makes it difficult to determine much less detect double dipping on prescriptions or which lost prescriptions are actually lost; basically, the legal system is poorly defended against drug seeking behavior and/or outright abuse. Another aspect is that overworked physicians may tend to use prescription as an expedient measure. Yet another aspect is that when opioids are prescribed appropriately there is little in place to negotiate post-treatment withdrawal. Many opioids have a competitive advantage over completely illicit drugs in that a substantial portion of the supply chain is legal and even commercially mass produced.

  2. I should also mention that the legal–>illicit conversion of opioids is broader than issues with medical prescriptions as it extends to veterinarian, animal control and animal husbandry practice and even dentistry. Control and monitoring of distribution and use of powerful opioids, in some cases much stronger than human forms, is less stringent (and nobody can ask the horse).

  3. Fentanyl and it’s deadly cousins are a cheap and relatively simple way of culling our population of some of our least productive and least desirable citizens.
    The prime responsibility for Fentanyl -related deaths belongs to those who illegally use these products.
    I’m referring to the illegal street use and not abuse of prescription-acquired addiction due to improper prescribing habits of doctors who generally do not prescribe these drugs and pharmacists who do not dispense these drugs.