The largest ever fentanyl seizure in Australia arrived from Canada inside military-style ammunition boxes hidden in an industrial lathe, Australian police said.
Australian authorities issued a public warning Monday about the dangers of the potent opioid because it is not previously known to be in the country in such purity and bulk.
“Typically, we would only see fentanyl being detected in quantities of one gram or less. To have a detection that is 11 kilograms pure is just quite frankly extraordinary,” said James Watson, a commander with the Australian Border Force (ABF).
“The audacity of the group behind this is just… outrageous. I’d describe it as a total act of bastardry.”
The first seizure of non-medicinal fentanyl in Australia was in 2013 and none have been more than 30 grams, police said. Most fentanyl street sales there are stolen or diverted medical patches meant for medical use.
“Our concern is that if such a large amount of fentanyl was in the hands of Australian-based criminal networks driven by greed, it could have passed uncontrolled and hidden into the community with possibly deadly results,” said Anthony Hall, acting commander of the Australian Federal Police.
A three-tonne industrial lathe, used in wood or metal working, was shipped from Vancouver and arrived in Melbourne in December 2021, Australian police said.
Because of unspecified suspicions about the shipping container, the ABF sent it for further scrutiny on Feb. 3.
The contents were X-rayed and officers “didn’t like what they saw. The X-ray showed inorganic material where it shouldn’t have been,” Watson said.
After a forklift lifted the lathe out of the shipping container, suspicion increased.
“The base of the lathe had poor quality welding and touch-up paint applied to it, which frankly just looked out of place,” Watson said. Officers drilled into the base and when the bit was extracted officers saw a light-brown substance on the end. It field-tested positive for fentanyl, causing alarm.
Fentanyl, Watson said, is “one of the more dangerous drugs our officers can come into contact with.”
A two-week operation to remove and analyze the powder was mounted, outdoors, by officers in full bio-hazard outfits with a decontamination zone, ambulances and naloxone — a drug that reverses opioid overdoses — at the ready.
Nearly 60 kilograms of powdered substance was found.
Photographs released by the police, dated March 1, show the powder wrapped in plastic tightly closed by zip ties and stuffed into metal ammunition cases which were stacked inside the undercarriage of the lathe.
The fentanyl was enough for 5.6 million doses. The find is so unprecedented, authorities said they had no estimate of a street value.
Police estimated the 30 kilograms of methamphetamine also inside had a street value of AUS$27 million (C$24.2 million.)
“We were absolutely shocked by the size of the detection and the audacity of this attempted importation, Watson said.
The delay in announcing the seizure may stem from difficulties in finding who is responsible for the load. Australian police made a public appeal for anyone with knowledge of the importation to contact them.
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“Someone out there in the community knows something,” said Hall. “We are at a crucial stage in the investigation and would appreciate some more information.”
Hall described the investigation as “ongoing,” “serious,” “complex” and “protracted.”
Nowhere did he say it was international.
Australian police said there is a joint operation with other Australian agencies but did not mention Canadian authorities.
Watson generically said border force officers “work with its partners both here in Australia and internationally to ensure illicit drugs don’t reach our communities.”
National Post asked the RCMP about the discovery, the Canadian connection, and if the RCMP was cooperating with Australian authorities. The RCMP declined to answer.
Asked about the role of Canadians in international drug trafficking around the world, the RCMP said to ask the Australian police.
After further requests, the RCMP said they would work on responding to the questions, but probably not before the deadline. No further response was received by the deadline.
Hall, of Australian police, said: “The interception of this amount of drugs would be a significant blow even to a well-resourced criminal syndicate and prevents millions of dollars of drug profit flowing back into the syndicate to fund their lavish lifestyles or next criminal venture.”
Fentanyl is a potent and addictive opioid designed to medically treat pain. Its use as a street drug can lead to lethal overdoses. In Canada, opioid use is a public-health crisis fueled in large measure by fentanyl use and fentanyl unknowingly mixed into street drugs.
There was a total of 29,052 apparent opioid toxicity deaths between January 2016 and December 2021, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.
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