Fentanyl is being sold on the dark web, raising fears of an Australian opioid crisis

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Fentanyl is being sold on the dark web, raising fears of an Australian opioid crisis

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AM / By Nick Grimm and Scott MitchellPosted Fri 12 Apr 2019 at 5:10amFriday 12 Apr 2019 at 5:10am

A laptop computer sits open on a bed in a dark room showing an email account on screen.
There are concerns the sale of opioids on the dark web could fuel an epidemic.(Unsplash: Jay Wennington)

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Australian researchers were amazed at what they found when they explored the murky reaches of the internet and found a smorgasbord of powerful and dangerous illicit substances available via mail order.

Key points:

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  • An ANU study finds enough fentanyl to create billions of doses being sold daily on the dark web
  • Fentanyl is highly addictive and it is a growing concern to drug experts in Australia
  • The drug is part of the opioid crisis in North America

Through what’s known as ‘the dark web’, a hidden network of websites only accessible through special routing software, an eBay-style market has been established for some serious drugs.

“These markets have notoriously been around since about 2011 and most will have heard of Silk Road and a variety of products that it sold,” the author’s study, ANU professor Roderic Broadhurst, said.

“Many of those markets have developed and they basically mimic an eBay or Amazon-type of online marketplace.”

On the dark web, anonymous servers mask the original IP address of the user and anonymity is further ensured by the use of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin or Litecoin.

Some of the illicit markets go by names like Berlusconi, Valhalla, and Wall Street.

“A particularly worrying sign in this study was that we found an enormous quantity of a substance known as carfentanil, which is a very, very potent fentanyl,” said Broadhurst, who is an expert in cybercrime.

“It’s anywhere between 10,000 and 100,000 times more potent than morphine.”

Fentanyl is a synthetic opiate, used medically as a pain killer, but its strength and highly addictive properties have made it a very dangerous narcotic.

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An image of one illicit online market place from the dark web, there are a number of powders and pills for sale with prices.
The sites look like any other online marketplace.(Supplied: ANU)

The doses are cheap, incredibly powerful, and easy to send through the mail — all things that are irresistible to drug traffickers.

“From a criminal entrepreneurial point of view, you only need very, very small quantities to produce large amounts of drugs with the equivalent strength of heroin or morphine,” Broadhurst said.

The search uncovered dozens of illegal sites offering amounts of fentanyl for sale that, in total, were the equivalent to billions of ordinary doses.

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“We’ve seen a lot of street heroin, amphetamines and other drugs now containing fentanyl to give them, for want of a better word, a quicker and faster high.”

The devastating effects of fentanyl

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Those with first-hand experience of drugs like fentanyl say the drug is extremely dangerous.

“My experience was quite scary,” Canberra man Chris Gough said.

A photo of Chris Gough, he is smiling white standing on some industrial equipment that is overlooking a park.
Chris Gough said fentanyl was even more dangerous than heroin during his time as a drug user.(Supplied)

Mr Gough became a heroin user after experiencing childhood trauma and homelessness.

Eventually his drug dependence led him to experiment with fentanyl — and it nearly killed him twice.

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“You’ve got to understand that one of the one of the things that attracts people to heroin is that when you inject heroin you get euphoric feeling — fentanyl is nothing like that,” he said.

“Fentanyl is lipid soluble, which means it goes straight through the blood-brain membrane and it attaches very quickly to the receptors in your brain.Dangers of fentanylRobert died from an accidental fentanyl overdose when he was only 22. His family wants the opioid deaths to stop.Read more

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“When you use fentanyl you often don’t actually remember injecting it even, so you may wake up 20 minutes later and not even realise or understand that you’ve injected.

“Or in my case you wake up with the ambulance [worker] standing over you and your family obviously hysterical because of what you’ve done.”

A methadone program helped Mr Gough change course and nowadays he manages the Canberra Alliance for Harm Minimisation and Advocacy.

And as he points out, medical-grade fentanyl has been available in Australia for years, with some users first developing their addiction when prescribed the powerful painkiller by doctors.

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But illegally manufactured versions of the drug have been flooding the streets of the United States and Canada, causing a surge in overdose deaths.

The worry is Australia will be next

Mark Ferry, chief operating officer of the Noffs Foundation, which helps young people with drug and alcohol problems, said he was astonished by the volume of drugs available as seen in the report.

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He said it was “a very big worry” because, while teenage drug users were largely not using fentanyl and synthetic opiates, he believed there had been an increase in the use of fentanyl by older users.The small-town doctor taking on the opioid crisisIn the ’90s, Art Van Zee noticed reports of addictions to a powerful new prescription painkiller. Now, his town’s humble community medical centre has become an unlikely rallying point for legal action against the manufacturer.Read more

“And that could change dramatically if these drugs were readily available in relatively large amounts on the dark web, which could be laced with other substances like heroin or used to produce synthetic heroin,” Mr Ferry said.

That is a prospect that terrifies those at the frontline of addiction, who fear Australia will soon face the same problems being experienced in the United States and Canada.

Marianne Jauncey is the medical director of the Uniting Medically Supervised Injecting Centre.

“It is something that keeps me awake at night,” Dr Jauncey said.

“Across North America and into Canada it’s nothing short of a public health emergency.

“In North America we’ve seen the actual life expectancy of the population go backwards slightly, and that’s largely driven by the number of people dying of accidental overdose.

“The risk is significant and I think a lot of us are actually pretty scared about what this might mean for Australia.”Posted 12 Apr 201912 Apr 2019Share

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