For fentanyl importers, Canada Post is the shipping method of choice

Most fentanyl enters Canada via the mail, thanks to an antiquated law. Why hasn’t the government acted?
RCMP Fentanyl China 20170918
An OPP officer displays bags containing fentanyl as Ontario Provincial Police host a news conference in Vaughan, Ont., on February 23, 2017. The RCMP has launched at least 20 investigations involving dozens of vendors shipping fentanyl from China as Canada grapples with a record number of illicit opioid deaths, the force’s director of serious organized crime says. (Chris Young/CP)
Boxes start to pile up at Canada Post’s Gateway Plant at Eglington and Dixie (Rene Johnston/Toronto Star/Getty Images)

Once or twice a week, a 24-year-old man in London, Ont., opens up his laptop for a little online shopping—fentanyl, heroin and other recreational drugs. The man, who works part-time in the hospitality industry, started buying drugs on the web after moving home to get a handle on an opioid addiction. It was seriously damaging his finances, but he wasn’t interested in quitting entirely. “Drugs are one of the things in my universe now because I want them to be there, not because they have to be,” he says. He turned to the internet for products he couldn’t find through local connections in a new city. When he finds what he’s looking for, he places an order. It doesn’t take long for it to be delivered through the mail.

The man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of tarnishing his job prospects, orders the drugs from a corner of the internet known as the dark web. It can only be accessed with a special browser that hides users’ identities; its sites can’t be found through a Google search. Drug markets on the dark web are, in many ways, similar to online megastores like Amazon. Vendors write marketing copy touting the purity and quality of their products. Buyers leave star ratings reviewing their purchases. Some leave comments: “Real professional vendor. One of the best!” “Trustworthy, never been let down.” “Don’t use meth often but compared to what I’ve had before this burns cleaner, tastes better and I don’t feel crazy sketched out. Haven’t done much but so far so good!”

But while an avid online shopper will see packages delivered by a variety of courier companies, almost all of these dark-web drug stores have just one option for their Canadian customers: Canada Post.

“Some will also offer private courier services at really high prices, but almost always offer Canada Post as the base option,” the London man says. “Sending through Canada Post can never be a 100 per cent surefire way to beat the cops, but it works 99.9999999 per cent of the time.”

READ MORE: How fentanyl turned an ER doctor into an addict

It’s likely an exaggeration to say it works 99.9999999 per cent of the time, but police say dealers are sending large—and growing—volumes of drugs through the mail undetected. E-commerce has upended the economics of drug trafficking, allowing people like the man in London to buy drugs without ever interacting face-to-face with a dealer. This new model for the drug trade has contributed to a spike in opioid overdose fatalities. The death toll is higher than any other Canadian public health crisis since the Spanish flu of 1918.

Police say criminals exploit an antiquated legal quirk that bars them from searching packages sent through Canada Post, a limitation that doesn’t exist for private courier services such as FedEx and UPS. Even the Canadian Civil Liberties Association agrees it’s time to close the loophole. But Canada Post says everything is fine; the Liberal government has so far refused to act. Why the inaction, given the consensus of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and even privacy activists? Nobody’s quite sure.

Listen to Claire Brownell talk about fentanyl in the mail on The Big Story podcast.

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Mike Serr, chief of the Abbotsford Police Department and co-chair of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police Drug Advisory Committee, says he’s never received a clear answer as to why Canada Post opposes closing a legal gap that is making the Crown corporation the shipping method of choice for criminals.

“The word is out there that you don’t use the courier service, you use Canada Post because of the limitations to law enforcement,” Serr says. “We have not yet understood why Canada Post has a resistance with us getting new authorities that are similar to other companies.”

Canada Post declined an interview request for interim CEO Jessica McDonald, but spokesperson Jon Hamilton described the chance of dangerous goods being shipped through the mail as “small.”

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“We have long-standing practices and processes in place to address any issues, with a team of postal inspectors who work closely with police across the country,” Hamilton said in an emailed response to questions. “Not just on seizure of items, but on supporting their investigations.”

But U.S. and Canadian law enforcement agree most fentanyl is coming into Canada through the mail system. Maclean’s also contacted several vendors on the dark web and confirmed they would not ship through a courier service, suggesting they’re well aware of the reduced investigative powers for police for packages sent through the regular mail system.

The problem for law enforcement officials stems from the Canada Post Corporation Act, a 1981 law written when interfering with the mail was considered an unthinkable violation of privacy. The act states that “nothing in the course of post is liable to demand, seizure, detention or retention.” Even with reasonable grounds to suspect criminal activity, officers can’t get a warrant to intercept mail “in the course of post,” which includes packages sitting in a mailbox or a Canada Post outlet in a mall. Instead, police must ask a postal inspector to review any packages they believe contain illicit goods on a case-by-case basis. Postal inspectors examine the evidence and decide whether the package is “non-mailable,” which covers everything from leaking laundry detergent to hand grenades. If the package is non-mailable, the inspectors can open it and turn the contents over to police. None of these arcane rules apply to private couriers.

The act does make an exception to allow customs officers to seize mail. The CBSA has officers working full-time at Canada Post’s three international mail sorting facilities in Vancouver, Mississauga, Ont., and Montreal. When border officers identify a package containing drugs, they turn it over to the police. Thus, both customs officials and Canada Post inspectors have more power to search the mail than police do.

READ MORE: Fentanyl’s many deadly cousins

Police find a way to work within the legal constraints, according to Yves Goupil, the RCMP’s director of serious and organized crime. During Project Crocodile, an investigation into international fentanyl trafficking, RCMP officers brought a Canada Post inspector along with them to seize and open suspicious packages, Goupil says.

But the barriers to getting a search warrant for packages sent through Canada Post are “something that makes things difficult for us, no doubt about it,” Goupil says. “We have several ongoing investigations and it happens on a regular basis.”

A 2015 case involving a Calgary man is a good example of the difference between the options available to police when drugs are shipped through the mail versus a courier service. In that case, the CBSA seized two packages en route to a Calgary UPS store containing methamphetamine ingredients and alerted the RCMP. Through warrants and the co-operation of the store owner, police learned who had rented the box and were able to inspect any packages delivered there. Prosecutors used all this as evidence in their case. The man ultimately pleaded guilty to drug importation, production and trafficking. But if the same packages had been sent through Canada Post, police would not have been able to obtain those warrants.

An OPP officer displays bags containing fentanyl (Chris Young/CP)

Police have been lobbying for the power to seek warrants for mail in transit through Canada Post for years. In 2015, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police passed a resolution calling on the government to change the Canada Post Act, with the RCMP and CBSA backing the proposal. In 2017, however, the Liberal government opted not to act on the recommendation. Maclean’s contacted both Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale and Bill Blair, the minister of border security and organized crime reduction, for an explanation of that decision, but neither was available for an interview, according to their staff. Instead, Blair spokesperson Marie-Emmanuelle Cadieux provided an emailed statement highlighting other measures the Liberals have taken to address the opioid crisis, such as banning the unregistered import of pill presses and giving the CBSA the power to search packages weighing less than 30 g.

“Canada Post already monitors packages and works closely with police,” Cadieux said in an email. “If an item is deemed suspicious by postal inspectors, they engage law enforcement.”

Even the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which defends Canadians’ constitutional rights and freedoms, supports the police’s position. The organization notes the special privacy protections were meant for letters, not packages. But packages make up a growing share of Canada Post’s delivery volume. As long as privacy protections for letters are preserved, it makes sense to give police the same powers to seize packages regardless of how they’re sent, according to Michael Bryant, executive director and general counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

“If there’s a concern that Canada Post is indeed being used to engage in illegal trafficking, then the legal powers ought to be focused on the police and not on Canada Post,” says Bryant, a former Ontario attorney general and Liberal politician. “What CCLA would not want to have happen is that the privacy standards be lowered for police intercepting letters. They ought to be treated like wiretaps.”

Complicating matters is the fact that a very small package can cause great harm. Based on information obtained through investigations and CBSA seizures, police say most of the fentanyl that ends up in North American street drugs comes from Chinese laboratories. Because fentanyl is so powerful, with just 30 g containing enough for 15,000 potentially fatal doses, these laboratories can easily ship bulk quantities of drugs through the mail.

With fentanyl wholesaling at about one-tenth the price of heroin by weight, there’s a strong incentive for organized crime groups to cut street drugs with fentanyl. From a supplier’s perspective, the stronger it is, the better, with fentanyl’s most potent analogues being the cheapest and easiest to smuggle—despite being the deadliest.

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Fentanyl has been around for decades, and doctors prescribe it legally for pain relief, but these black-market labs have only recently started manufacturing and exporting it to North America for use in street drugs on a large scale. Samuel Banister, a scientist at the University of Sydney who researches the designer drugs created in these labs, points to three factors making the phenomenon possible: the ease of exchange of scientific information on the internet, higher volumes of packages sent around the world thanks to e-commerce and the outsourcing of pharmaceutical manufacturing to China and India, allowing those countries to amass the necessary equipment and expertise.

“You have operators who can now make a kilogram of anything and are happy to send it to a client in the U.S. or the U.K.,” Banister says. “You’ve sort of removed all barriers for an individual designing and manufacturing a drug.”

Many overseas labs openly advertise wholesale quantities of fentanyl powder on the internet, through online business-to-business portals and even social media sites, although some of them may be scams. A public LinkedIn page for a chemical supplier purportedly based in Australia brags: “We supply top-quality 2C-B [a psychedelic], fentanyl powder, crystal meth . . . MDMA, ecstasy pills,” promising “discrete [sic] packaging and safe delivery within two to three days” and providing a contact email address that appears to include someone’s full first and last name.

The internet has also made it possible for consumers—like the man in London—to buy drugs directly, which leaves them better off than people who have to rely on dealers. Most drug users don’t have the resources necessary to take advantage of this, however. Eighty per cent of dark-web drug buyers are men, most in their early to mid 20s and professionally employed or pursuing post-secondary education, according to a summary of academic studies of dark-web drug buyers by the University of Essex’s Meropi Tzanetakis. Navigating dark-web drug markets requires a computer, an internet connection and a mailing address. That alone is more than many drug users have. You also need a special browser, knowledge of how to buy and use cryptocurrencies, and familiarity with user-unfriendly software that allows buyers and sellers to exchange encrypted messages. The reward for learning how to navigate all that is the ability to buy directly from online drug markets that offer a degree of quality control. If a vendor cuts fentanyl into a product without telling his customers, they’ll leave negative reviews warning others off. Some of the major dark-web markets have even banned fentanyl entirely.

Volunteers at the Moss Park supervised injection site in Toronto revive a woman who overdosed on fentanyl on May 16, 2018. (Ian Willms/The New York Times/Redux Pictures)

Without the technical savvy to access dark-web markets, most of the many Canadians who are addicted to opioids are stuck with drugs from riskier sources. The RCMP says organized crime groups buy most of Canada’s fentanyl, which they cut into other street drugs or press into pills passed off as other drugs in laboratories in Western Canada. These groups then distribute the fentanyl-laced drugs to regional dealers, most of whom have no idea what the product they’re selling is laced with. Fentanyl is often sold as something else entirely, with dealers telling customers they’re buying heroin or OxyContin pills. The Canadians dying of overdoses are often desperately poor, with a 2017 Ontario Drug Policy Research Network study finding about a third of overdose fatalities in the province in 2017 were among the poorest 20 per cent of the population. Drug users who buy from street dealers have no access to information about what’s in the product.

Further, addicts have been driven to more dangerous fentanyl-laced drugs through a combination of measures, including new pharmaceutical formulations that are harder to abuse, restrictions on opioid prescriptions and a crackdown on the heroin supply. In the U.S., expanding addicts’ access to treatment has failed to stop the death toll from rising. So have decades of “war on drugs” efforts aimed at taking down suppliers and traffickers.

Jordan Westfall, executive director of the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs, compares the crisis to alcohol prohibition in the early 20th century. Back then, people drank dangerous homemade brews despite the risk of going blind or dying. The only way to save lives is to offer Canadians a safe, legal supply of all drugs, he says. This may sound radical to many, but Canada and B.C.’s top public health officers have also voiced support for decriminalization and access to a safe supply of opioids for addicts. “You could throw all the rehab in the world at this problem and the drug market would still be contaminated and there would still be people who are going to want to use them,” Westfall says. “We need to try something different here while we still can.”

But even in a world of legalized drugs, police would still have a role to play in keeping dangerous, unregulated counterfeits from entering the country. Serr, the Abbotsford police chief, admits allowing police to search the mail with a warrant is not going to solve the overdose crisis. “It’s not going to completely disrupt the drug trafficking coming in through the mail. We know this is always going to be a challenge for us,” he says. But he says that doesn’t mean it’s not worth closing a loophole that criminals are exploiting. Some fentanyl might get taken out of the supply; some lives might be saved.

More effective enforcement of drugs being sent through the mail might not be welcome news for our man in London. He says he believes he’s at a lower risk of an overdose because he only buys products from vendors and dealers he trusts, and doesn’t inject drugs. But while many of his fellow Canadians addicted to opioids turn to riskier options out of desperation, he swears he won’t become one of them.

“If all my in-person sources dried up and there was no dark web, I would inevitably start doing less,” he says. “I’m not sure I would ever be comfortable with doing street heroin or fentanyl unless I absolutely trusted my dealer.”