Deadly synthetic opioid found in Toronto

Jan 8, 2019

Ontario police have issued a warning after the discovery of a new synthetic opioid in Toronto. The substance has been linked to overdose deaths around the world, and is now appearing in Canada.

The drug’s full name is U-48800, and it has been previously identified in Canada six times by Health Canada. The substance was first discovered in February 2018, and confirmed in samples sent to Health Canada by law enforcement agencies in Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia.

The substance had recently appeared in Ontario for the first time. In late December, Toronto police announced that a white powder was discovered during an unrelated search of a west-end Toronto home two months earlier. Subsequently, Health Canada identified the sample as U-48800.

The substance, also known as 2-(2,4-dichlorophenyl)-N-(2-(dimethylamino)cyclohexyl)-N-methylacetamide, is not controlled in Canada, and Canadian law enforcement agencies are not able to charge individuals with possession of U-48800 under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, unlike other synthetic opioids such as U-47700. The substance referred to as U-47700 is a synthetic opioid created in the 1970s by the US-based pharmaceutical company Upjohn. Both U-47700 and U-48800 are different from fentanyl in terms of molecular structure, but produce similar effects.

U-47700 is responsible for numerous overdose deaths worldwide; however, due to the differences in molecular structures of U-47700 and U-48800, they are not considered to be analogs in Canada. A US government probe suggests that these two substances are sometimes sold as substitutes of each other, and that Americans purchase these two drugs from online sellers based in China.

According to the probe carried out by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs investigations subcommittee, in the days leading up to U-47700 being placed on China’s list of controlled substances last summer, an online seller was advertising a “hot sale” on its remaining U-47700. The probe revealed that U-47700 was subsequently discontinued, and the seller had offered U-48800 as a replacement.

In an interview with the Globe and Mail, Keith Graves, a drug-recognition expert instructor and retired police sergeant, who investigated street-level drug crimes in the San Francisco Bay Area, explained that restricting U-47700 led to the creation of U-48800, as well as two other drugs, U-49900 and U-50488. “All they’re doing is they’re just changing a little bit of the chemical structure of it to get around our laws… It’s being manufactured in China, people are buying it through the dark web and having it shipped to their house.”

Canada is currently facing a national opioid crisis. The increasing number of overdoses and deaths caused by opioids, including fentanyl, is considered to be a public health emergency by Health Canada. According to data presented by Health Canada, there were 2,066 apparent opioid-related deaths in Canada between January and June 2018; 94% were accidental. Toronto police authorities are warning the public to use “extreme caution” when coming into contact with any unknown substances and specifically, any white powder they know or believe to be an opioid.