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Everything You Should Know About Carfentanil, the Drug Even Deadlier Than Fentanyl

It's allegedly been used as a chemical weapon and is an elephant tranquilizer—now, it's being spiked into heroin.
Photo via CBSA's Twitter

This post originally appeared on VICE Canada.

The Canadian Border Services Agency announced that earlier this summer a dangerous drug called carfentanil was seized in a package from China destined for Calgary. A potent synthetic drug more powerful than fentanyl, carfentanil is known for being a large animal tranquilizer and for its alleged use as a chemical weapon by the Russian military.

This is not the first time carfentanil destined for the illicit drug market has been found in North America. In July, health officials in Ohio issued a warning about the drug after a string of mass overdoses where the substance was found in the heroin supply. Over just three days, 25 overdoses were reported in Akron, Ohio—four of which were fatal; and in Columbus, ten overdoses occurred in a nine-hour window, including two fatal ones. A man in Ohio was charged in connection to a death and a number of overdoses following the incidents.


Canada's federal police service claims that as little as less than a grain of salt—20 micrograms—of carfentanil can be fatal. Public health officials are concerned that naloxone, the opioid overdose antidote, might not be as effective for someone overdosing on carfentanil.

In 2002, Russian military gassed Chechen rebels at a Moscow theater during a hostage situation. Scientific analysis of survivors' clothing and urine from the incident suggested there was evidence to support that carfentanil was one of two substances contained in the aerosol that was deployed. Reportedly, 125 died at the time due to a combination of the effects of the aerosol and a lack of medical care.

"It is hard to imagine what the impact could have been if even the smallest amounts of this drug were to have made its way to the street," said George Stephenson of the RCMP in a press release.

A kilo of the drug, which is a white powder, was seized on its way to Calgary in a package that was marked as printer accessories on June 27. According to the CBSA, this was enough carfentanil for "more than 50 million doses." A 24-year-old Calgary man named Joshua Wrenn has been charged with one count of importation of a controlled substance and one count of possession for the purpose of trafficking. Wrenn is scheduled to appear in provincial court on October 19. However, officials are saying this is the second such seizure of the substance in Canada. According to a member of the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians quoted by AP, "just a little bit short of a hazmat suit" is used to handle the drug when it's being prepared as a sedative for animals such as elephants. "One can imagine that drug traffickers see persisting opportunity in Alberta because the response to the public health emergency here hasn't risen to match the magnitude or severity of our problem," Dr. Hakique Virani, an opioid addictions specialist in Edmonton, told VICE. In 2015, close to 300 people died due to fentanyl in Alberta—an increase of more than 75 percent from the previous year. "This trend in illicit opioid trafficking is as frightening as it was predictable—we saw the drug trade attempt to decrease import weights while increasing overall supply… Now they've turned their attention to other known fentanyl analogs that produce effects in infinitesimal quantities," Virani said. "So long as there continues to be a large unmet demand for opioids because we aren't treating people with addiction, the illicit market will find ways to meet that demand… In the meantime, people die." Follow Allison Tierney on Twitter.