U-47700 for sale online

A quick online search shows how easy it is to order designer drugs such as U-47700. The RCMP says it's working with Canada Post and the Canada Border Services Agency to seize shipment, but the drugs are still getting in. (Wikimedia Commons)

The death of a 22-year-old man from Pincourt, Que., just west of Montreal, is bringing to light the risks posed by a new synthetic opioid on the illegal market.

Nicholas Vietri died last February after consuming U-47700, a dangerous designer drug known as "pink" or "pinky" on the street that he had ordered online.

Vietri was found face down in his bed in the house where he lived with his father. Two months earlier, he'd been found unconscious after using the same drug, but survived.

According to the coroner's report into his death, Vietri had been staying awake all night, more and more frequently. The day before he died, he threw up, and there were traces of blood on his clothing.

The young man spent his final hours alive chatting online, sending  his last message at 8:39 a.m. An hour and a half later, his father found Vietri's lifeless body.

Coroner Jacques Ramsay said the autopsy found a panoply of drugs in Vietri's system.

In addition to a prescribed antidepressant, there were traces of U-47700, fentanyl and at least five other drugs which are fentanyl spinoffs.

In his report, Ramsay cited a November 2016 warning about the use of U-47700, alone or with fentanyl, from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. The DEA attributed some 50 deaths to the drug in the previous two years.

Because Vietri kept up to date in online forums and discussions with people around the world, Ramsay says the young man was aware of the latest "scoops and trends" before the drug even hit Quebec.

U-47700 — about 7.5 times more potent than morphine in animal models — was first developed by the pharmaceutical company Upjohn in the late 1970s but never made it to human trials.

Ramsay said the drugs are synthetically produced outside Canada, often in China.

"Several publications state that even the most negligible of quantities is enough to provoke respiratory depression, subsequently leading to death," Ramsay wrote in his report.

More drugs arriving by mail

The RCMP says it is seeing an uptick in the amount of drugs coming into the country through the post.  

"We know there's been an increase over the last year, but I don't have the numbers," said Corporal Erique Gasse. "What I can say is that year over year, these numbers are climbing rapidly."

Gasse says working in conjunction with Canada Post and the Canada Border Services Agency, the RCMP is able track and investigate drug imports more easily.

However, there are still illegal drugs slipping through the cracks into Canada — a fact not lost on the coroner.

"By ordering over the internet, Vietri had a privileged access [to the drugs] for which he tragically paid the price," writes Ramsay.

He ruled the death accidental and did not make any recommendations in his report.