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.