Drugs laced with Chinese fentanyl linked to overdoses
Health authorities have issued a warning about a spate of overdose deaths and harm caused by illicit drugs being laced with the deadly opioid fentanyl, which is being pumped out by China's unregulated drug labs.
Crime and drug experts fear we are at the start of an opioid epidemic driven by the powerful and cheap synthetic chemical being used to adulterate heroin, ecstasy and cocaine, triggering unsuspecting user deaths.
Fentanyl is so dangerous that an amount equivalent to just four grains of salt can kill.
The same problem in the US has led to tens of thousands of fatalities, with President Donald Trump using trade deals to try to get China to declare it a "controlled substance" and stop exporting it.
The latest NSW Health Department's public health warning says "the opioids fentanyl and acetylfentanyl have recently been identified as likely adulterants in cocaine or ketamine".
It has put out a special fact sheet telling the public to be on the lookout for symptoms of drowsiness if people have taken stimulants like cocaine, and physical signs such as skin going blue.
NSW Poisons Information Centre Professor Andrew Dawson said people who recently used substances they thought were cocaine or ketamine developed toxicity from acetylfentanyl and fentanyl in NSW.
"We've seen several people recently where acetylfentanyl was taken unknowingly and was associated with serious harm," Prof Dawson said.
"It's important that people realise an overdose can occur with very small doses of fentanyl-related substances."
Earlier this week, a man died and two women were taking to hospital after a drug overdose at Lidcombe, while on October 6, five people were found unconscious on the Central Coast from a mass drug overdose.
It is not yet clear if fentanyl, usually taken in a dose of 0.2 milligrams with a fatal amount of just two milligrams - played a role in those incidents.
Doctors legally use the drug for severe pain relief, but criminals are now using the chemical made in China to cut other drugs.
Australian Strategic Policy Institute's policing and law enforcement head Dr John Coyne says simply imposing sanctions against China won't work.
Instead he argues we need to ramp up inspecting incoming mail, build on existing bilateral law enforcement, work with the Chinese government and reduce demand through education.
"The chemical pharmaceutical industry in China is massive, there are some 40,000 laboratories and chemical manufacturing sites," he said.
"It's incredibly difficult for the Chinese government to be able to control and regulate that.
"We need to work with the Chinese government to better regulate their chemical and pharmaceutical industries in mainland China to prevent these sorts of drugs from being produced there and moved around the globe.
"That's a key priority."
In the US, Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame musicians Prince and Tom Petty both died of accidental fentanyl overdoses, while George Floyd, whose death at the hands of a policeman sparked BLM protests, was found to have fentanyl in his bloodstream.
Another variation of fentanyl called carfentanil was originally designed to sedate elephants and is least 10,000 times stronger than morphine and can be lethal at 0.02 milligrams - invisible to the naked eye.
Australian National University Professor of Criminology Professor Roderic Broadhurst, who researched the ease of purchasing fentanyl on the "dark web" last year, says transnational organised crime groups are facilitating the global supply of cheaper synthetic opioids to "meet the demand for pain relief and escapism".
"Australia may be at the start of an opioid epidemic driven by access to synthetic opioids including fentanyl both on the street and online but has the advantage of being able to adapt supply, demand and harm reduction policies and practices," he said.
The Pennington Institute's latest annual drug report says unintentional overdose deaths involving fentanyl, pethidine and tramadol have increased by almost 1,500 per cent since 2006 in Australia.
Originally published as Drugs laced with Chinese fentanyl linked to overdoses