Why are federal authorities so concerned about a record shipment of fentanyl discovered in Melbourne?

Federal authorities have discovered an “extraordinary” amount of fentanyl hidden inside machinery at a Melbourne warehouse.

Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the Australian Border Force (ABF) have seized 11 kilograms of the opioid – a record in Australia – and 30 kilograms of methamphetamine which arrived from Canada late last year.

AFP says the smuggling attempt is “outrageous” and warns of the dangers of the deadly opioid.

Although it is common for authorities to express concern over large shipments of illegal drugs, fentanyl poses unique risks to those who take it, which in some cases may be unknowingly.

What is fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a fast-acting synthetic opioid, which means it’s made in a lab – not derived from the poppy plant like natural opioids. It was developed as pain management for cancer patients.

The drug interrupts the way nerves signal pain between the brain and the body, so it can quickly and effectively block pain.

The shipment of 11 kilograms of fentanyl is the first seizure in Australia of more than 30 grams.(Provided: AFP)

Fentanyl is normally prescribed as a patch, but can also come as a lozenge, lollipop, or intravenous injection.

But it is highly addictive due to its ability to bind to brain receptors that control pain and emotions.

What is fentanyl used for?

Fentanyl is prescribed for chronic cancer pain, postoperative pain and other forms of severe pain, nerve damage, back injuries and major trauma.

The Alcohol and Drug Foundation says it’s about 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine.

Illicit fentanyl users most often extract the opioid from the patches and inject it.

A rust-colored piece of machinery
The fentanyl and methamphetamine were found hidden inside an industrial wood lathe, which is a machine for shaping wood or metal.(Provided: AFP)

But AFP says foreign criminal syndicates are known to mix other drugs with fentanyl, often with deadly consequences.

This is another reason why authorities were alarmed by the discovery in Melbourne of such a large quantity in powdered form.

What does fentanyl do to the body?

Opioids slow down the messages between the brain and the body to suppress pain. They create a feeling of relaxation and sedation, but can cause confusion, nausea, loss of consciousness and death.

“Fentanyl can have a very serious effect on your respiratory system,” said Sam Biondo of the Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association.

“It can slow your breathing, it can slow your blood pressure. It can slowly put you to sleep to the point where you start to turn blue from lack of oxygen and then you’re in a very, very serious situation and in danger of dying .”

Two officers wear full PPE and masks as they look at industrial machinery.
Officers were forced to wear biohazard suits while inspecting the shipment.(Provided: AFP)

The National Institute on Drug Abuse says the brain can get used to opioids, making it harder to experience the same pain relief or pleasure.

It says withdrawal symptoms include muscle and bone pain, disturbed sleep, vomiting and severe cravings, which makes it difficult for many people to stop taking it.

How deadly is fentanyl?

The Alcohol and Drug Foundation says fentanyl affects everyone differently based on their weight, health, history of drug use, and amount consumed.

He says just 2 milligrams can cause a fatal overdose – about the same weight as two grains of salt.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse says some drug dealers mix fentanyl with heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA because it takes very little to produce a high, so c is cheaper for them.

Mr Biondo said this made fentanyl particularly dangerous on the streets.

“People think they’re taking one substance and then they’re taking another. The substitution of that substance is what’s causing people problems,” he said.

“It’s only a fine line between life and death on this particular substance. A very, very, very small amount can actually be quite harmful.”

Biondo says fentanyl overdoses are a big problem in the United States and Canada.

“Over 60,000 people died in 2020 in the US and 21 people a day are dying in Canada from fentanyl and it could be just as problematic if it continues in Australia,” he said.

Pop icons Prince and Tom Petty both died of an accidental fentanyl overdose.

What is the extent of illegal fentanyl use in Australia?

ABF Commander James Watson said fentanyl had not been found on Australian streets in the same quantities as overseas.

But Mr Biondo said five Victorians died from fentanyl overdoses in 2020 and other Australian health authorities have expressed growing concerns about fentanyl contamination in other medicines.

Research published in 2013 by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Center found an increase in fentanyl-related deaths in Australia in the five years to 2011, particularly among middle-aged Australians.

He revealed that fentanyl prescriptions had increased more than fivefold.

A report from the National Wastewater Drug Program, released this year, found that fentanyl consumption in Australia has been trending down over the past few years.

It also found that per capita consumption was “significantly higher than consumption in the capital”.

A gloved hand holds a tube filled with a grainy substance which is the drug fentanyl
Fentanyl is currently not a common drug in Australia.(Provided: AFP)

AFP says Australian authorities have only ever detected illicit imports of fentanyl in small quantities – all below 30 grams – with the first case in 2017.

“So to have a pure 11kg detection is just amazing,” says Commander Watson.

Acting AFP Commander Anthony Hall said organized crime networks were targeting Australia for higher profits.

“It is well known that the Australian community, unfortunately, pays higher sums for all types of medicines imported into the country,” he said.

Mr Biondo said community drug education and accessible pill testing were essential to help reduce the dangers of fentanyl.

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