Day 6

How mislabelled fentanyl pills ended up in Prince's home — and all over Canada

This week, we found out that some of the painkillers found in Prince's home after he died contained fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that's 50 to 100 times more powerful than heroin. David Armstrong, a reporter with the health and medical news site STAT, says across North America, it's now common to find fentanyl pills masquerading as commonly prescribed painkillers and that it's is making an already bad situation much, much worse.
Prince performs onstage in 2015. This week, investigators confirmed painkillers found in Prince's Paisley Park home tested positive for fentanyl. (Karrah Kobus/NPG Records)

Canada is failing to keep deadly fentanyl pills out of the country because under Canadian law, anyone can buy the equipment to make them directly from China, says David Armstrong a reporter with the medical news site STAT who has been tracking the rise of the opioid drug in North America.

"Commercial-grade pill presses, used by pharmaceutical companies, come into Canada from China, with no regulation as of now," Armstrong told Day 6 host Brent Bambury. He says the equipment to make the pills also turns up in the U.S. but in a clandestine way because the Drug Enforcement Agency has to officially approve importing requests.

"In Canada, there isn't even a prohibition against it," adds Armstrong.

This week, police in the U.S confirmed that painkillers found in Prince's Paisley Park home tested positive for fentanyl. The pills were labelled "Watson 385", a generic version of the drug vicodin that hasn't been made in more than two and a half years.

Commercial-grade pill presses, used by pharmaceutical companies, come into Canada from China, with no regulation- David Armstrong, reporter with health and medical news site, STAT

Prince's death may be the most high-profile case involving fentanyl but extremely potent doses of fentanyl, processed to look like legitimate prescription painkillers, are turning up across North America.

Last week, investigators in B.C. reported drug related deaths are up 75 per cent compared to this time last year. Many of those deaths are being blamed on fentanyl.

Raw materials to make fentanyl

Armstrong says Canada has also become a hotbed for the production of fentanyl because the ingredients needed to make the pills arrive on Canadian soil through a more direct route.

"A lot of the agents you need to cut or make fentanyl in pill form come from China. In the U.S. it usually goes to Mexico first, where cartels are usually cutting it into heroin, sometimes making it into pill form. In Canada, it's coming directly from China and organized crime syndicates in Canada are then manufacturing the fentanyl to their specifications," says Armstrong.

He says the RCMP and other police agencies in Canada have found full-scale pharmaceutical laboratories, largely in the Western provinces, that are producing millions of fentanyl pills mislabelled as something else, like percocet or oxycontin.

Why the deadly pills get mislabelled

Armstrong says drug dealers are making fentanyl pills to look like commonly-prescribed and less potent pain pills, such as Watson 385 — the drug found in Prince's estate, because they can make far more money off of them that way.

"A kilogram of fentanyl costs roughly the same as a kilogram of heroin at the wholesale level. But you can cut the fentanyl 16-24 times and get that much more product than you would with heroin. So for the drug dealers, this is an incredibly profitable opioid," says Armstrong.

Seized counterfeit hydrocodone tablets from northern California show how similar the powerful synthetic narcotic fentanyl is to generic painkillers. (D.E.A. handout / REUTERS)

50 to 100 times more potent than heroin

Armstrong says fentanyl in its raw form is so potent, that you can overdose by touching it — potentially fatally.

"This has happened in the U.S. with police officers, two in particular in New Jersey. [They] didn't know they were handling fentanyl powder and they overdosed [but] they lived," says Armstrong.

And he says drug dealers don't care if they kill their customers or anyone else, as long as the profit margins remain so high.

"That's what has everyone concerned, it's the economics here," says Armstrong.