Police in Ottawa are hoping they have helped stem the tide of deadly counterfeit prescription drugs being distributed in Canada after arresting 12 people believed to be running a trafficking operation.
The arrests follow a rise in life-threatening overdoses and deaths, which are believed to be linked to counterfeit prescription drugs laced with the potent opioid fentanyl.
The presence of the fake look-alikes, manufactured to look identical to prescription painkillers and anti-anxiety meds, has spiked in recent years as have overdose deaths. Just this week, Ottawa police said they were investigating whether counterfeit oxycodone payed a role in the tragic death of 14-year-old Chloe Kotval. Authorities fear people are taking the bogus drugs unaware of the true contents and dangers.
The arrests in Ottawa are the result of a four-month Ottawa and Ontario Provincial Police investigation into a suspected drug distribution network, and involved raids on a family residence, two town houses, two apartments and a storage locker in Ottawa.
A stash of counterfeit pills believed to contain fentanyl, fentanyl powder, cocaine and methamphetamine were seized, along with assault rifles, handguns, stun guns, a shotgun, ammunition and more than $130,000 in cash.
The suspects will be charged with drug possession for the purpose of trafficking, possession of the proceeds of crime and weapons offences.
"We seized thousands of pills today, so the potential there is for mass casualties," said Staff Sargent Rick Carey, of the Ottawa Police Service's drug unit. "We're trying to make sure his doesn't hit the street, because it's being accessed by youth who aren't aware of what's going on. People have no idea what it is they're ingesting."
While the seizure, the largest in Ottawa police history, would have an impact on the distribution of the fake drugs, he said the opioid issue was a wider problem that wouldn't be sorted by a single raid.
The arrests come just days after police and public health officials in Ottawa warned residents of the influx of dangerous counterfeit prescription pills into the city and urged residents to only take prescription pills from reputable pharmacies and medical professionals.
The warning was spurred by a number of recent near-fatal overdoses in Ottawa, which are believed to be caused by counterfeit drugs.
Fentanyl, a prescription drug itself used for chronic pain management, is about 100 times stronger than morphine and about 40 times more powerful than heroin, and can be lethal at doses of just two milligrams.
The presence of these fentanyl-laced fakes is a growing concern for Canada, and officials have described it as an opioid crisis.
In Ontario, opioid deaths involving fentanyl have risen from 120 in 2013 to 162 in 2015. In British Columbia, drug overdoses have jumped from 366 in 2014 to 914 last year, with 142 deaths recorded in December alone.
Efforts to stamp out the manufacturer and distribution have been ramped up, and this month the mayors of Canada's 12 biggest cities formed a task force to counter the crisis.
"Cities are dealing with the fentanyl opioid crisis on the front lines, but the tragedy is escalating. We're at a breaking point," said Vancouver Mayor and task force chair Gregor Robertson, reported by the Ottawa Citizen.
To help crackdown on the counterfeits, Canada has recently started regulating six of the chemicals used to manufacture fentanyl.
The country is also working with the Chinese Ministry of Public Security to introduce measures that will place restrictions on fentanyl imports from China, which is believed to be the source fuelling the current opioid epidemic.
Last year, Canadian law enforcement agencies called for the government to tighten controls on the importation of tablet press equipment to help deal with counterfeit pills.