In The Field: Karen Howlett

Karen Howlett explains how a team of Globe and Mail journalists attempted to trace the deadly path of fentanyl from supplier to consumer— a search that would produce troubling questions about the ability of governments to get a handle on this national crisis. 

The Globe and Mail’s investigation into fentanyl was sparked by an alarming surge in overdose deaths from a potent new street drug.

In March, 2015, the Blood Tribe reserve in southwestern Alberta declared a state of emergency after at least 10 people died of overdoses.

In May, 2015, RCMP officers in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, seized 63 pills as part of a probe into the sudden death of a 45-year-old man. Test results showed that the pills, dyed green to mimic the 80-milligram OxyContin tablets favoured by opioid abusers, contained fentanyl.

And in December of that year, health-care workers linked an overdose death in Victoria’s homeless tent city on Boxing Day to a single bad batch of drugs that was to blame for three dozen overdoses over the span of a week.   

The Globe assembled a team of reporters on two continents in early 2016 to tie together these developments into a national story. Their five-page report, titled Killer High: How Canada got addicted to fentanyl published in April, 2016, followed the supply chain for the illicit drug to chemical companies in China, and showed the ease with which traffickers were smuggling it into Canada by exploiting gaps at the border. 

The report also traced the epidemic of fentanyl-related overdoses back to its very beginning, with the introduction two decades earlier of the first mass-marketed prescription opioid to Canada – OxyContin. The painkiller was popular not only with people who became addicted to the drug after their doctor prescribed it, but also with heroin users, because they could easily snort it like cocaine or inject it like heroin for a quick high. Organized crime filled the void left by the removal OxyContin from the market in Canada in 2012 with a bootleg version of the little green pill.

The first question reporters sought to answer was how many Canadians were dying after consuming an illicit version of the prescription painkiller fentanyl. 

It quickly became apparent that a mounting epidemic of overdose deaths was hiding in plain sight. Unlike the United States, Canada does not have a national database tracking deaths from opioid overdoses, leaving policy makers without the basic tools to monitor a leading cause of accidental deaths. In a bid to fill that gap, The Globe contacted coroners and medical examiners in every province and territory. Still, it was not possible to compile a national tally, because each region collects and interprets data differently. And many of the statistics were out of date: the most recent numbers were from 2014 for Ontario and 2013 for Quebec.

In the absence of reliable data on overdose deaths, the reporters looked for other ways to document the scale of Canada’s fentanyl problem. They scoured the Internet for public health alerts from municipalities that had issued warnings about the presence of a drug known on the street as “greenies” or “shady eighties,” indicating a  connection between illicit fentanyl and OxyContin. In addition to British Columbia and Alberta, the two hardest-hit provinces, several communities in Ontario had been hit with a spike in fatal overdoses. The findings revealed a disturbing trend – one neither the federal nor provincial governments had yet to acknowledge: the scourge of fentanyl was rapidly expanding east from Western Canada. 

The next question for reporters: how was a drug that originates in China getting smuggled into Canada? To obtain accurate information about how easy it is to order fentanyl over the Internet, a Globe reporter corresponded with companies that supply the drugs using a pseudonym and did not disclose himself as a journalist. One supplier from China e-mailed photos of fentanyl hidden inside silica-desiccant packets – the type normally used when shipping goods such as electronics – and a screen shot of a recent order from Canada.   

These companies exist in plain view on the Internet, openly advertising the drugs they make and sell. On the ground, The Globe discovered a different story. The Globe’s Beijing correspondent travelled to Wuhan in search of addresses posted online by a series of drug manufacturers, but the trail went cold. None of them could be found.

The trail was just as murky on this side of the Pacific. To try to gauge the size of the underground fentanyl market in Canada, The Globe compiled a database of the number of trafficking rings busted by police. This involved reviewing public-disclosure statements made by the RCMP and other major police forces on anything involving fentanyl powder and pill-press machines smuggled into Canada from China. 

Court documents relating to drug trafficking, including search warrants used by police, are usually sealed. But The Globe obtained documents relating to the sentencing and bail hearing for two drug dealers behind the country’s first clandestine lab, in Montreal, providing a glimpse into how these operations produce illicit fentanyl powder. The Montreal lab imported the white crystalline powder from China, cut it with fillers, put it through a pill-press machine, and then shipped the tablets by courier all over North America.  

The Globe review found that police across Canada had shut down 20 fentanyl labs since the first major bust in Montreal in April 2013 – just months after OxyContin was pulled from the market in 2012. 

But much of the fentanyl was arriving in Canada undetected. It took repeated questions from The Globe over several weeks before a spokesperson at the Canada Border Services Agency confirmed that border guards could not legally open packages weighing less than 30 grams without the consent of the recipient. Suppliers often shipped drugs in packages under the 30-gram threshold, ensuring that border agents would not open them. 

The Globe report paints a bleak picture of a street drug whose deadly fallout continues to make itself felt. It showed that Ottawa and the provinces had failed to take adequate steps to address the roots of the problem – the over prescribing of prescription painkillers – paving the way for a booming underground market in bootleg fentanyl.  

At least 2,458 people died of opioid-related overdoses in Canada in 2016 – an average of almost seven a day - according to the first attempt to measure the toll the drugs have taken from coast to coast. But that national snapshot is far from complete: the numbers released in June 2017 by a federal-provincial-territorial special advisory committee do not include Quebec, and the data collected from Ontario and Newfoundland and Labrador are from 2015, making them more than a year out of date.


Karen Howlett is an award-winning Toronto-based journalist at The Globe and Mail, where she is a member of the investigations team. She has spent much of the past 1.5 years reporting on Canada's opioid crisis. Prior to joining the investigations team in 2013, she was based in The Globe’s Queens Park bureau, where she reported on federal-provincial relations and Ontario politics. She has also worked in The Globe’s British Columbia bureau and in The Globe’s Report on Business section, where she reported on financial services and securities regulation. 

Howlett, along with Justin Giovannetti, Nathan VanderKlippe, Andrea Woo, Les Perreaux, Laura Blenkinsop, Trish McAlaster, Michael Pereira, Melissa Tait were CAJ 2016 award winners in the OPEN MEDIA category.

 The CAJ's In The Field series invites leading Canadian journalists to share the stories behind the making of their award-winning works. 

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