September 9, 2020 video: Huge fentanyl pill bust in Ontario, Canada

Project Javelin

In June, police in Ontario shut down a huge counterfeiting operation responsible for manufacturing hundreds of thousands of fentanyl pills disguised as Oxycocet, a Health Canada-approved generic oxycodone and acetaminophen product with the same ingredients as Percocet. The effort, which was dubbed Project Javelin, began as an investigation into suspected methamphetamine labs. It concluded at the end of May with arrests and the largest fentanyl seizure Ontario has seen to date—123,700 fentanyl pills, 70 kilograms of fentanyl powder (enough for as many as 35 million two milligram pills), industrial pill presses and other commercial equipment, 700 pharmacy-sized pill bottles, and a roll of forged painkiller labels.

Fentanyl pills in Canada

Images from Project Javelin released by the Ontario Provincial Police.

Canada’s problem with fentanyl-laced counterfeits slightly predates the problem in the U.S. The Globe and Mail dates the earliest fentanyl counterfeits to April 2013, when police raided storage units in a Montreal neighborhood and found nearly 200,000 pills, as well as equipment that could produce thousands more per hour. Two Quebec residents, Patrick Provencher and Jason Berry, had been distributing the pills all over North America; they were arrested on their way to ship a microwave oven containing more than 10,000 of the fake pills to New Jersey.*

Police across Canada shut down 20 fentanyl labs between April 2013 and April 2016. They continue to do so, but just like here in the U.S., that hasn’t put brakes on the problem. Fentanyl pill seizures have become routine, and deaths like 14-year-old Chloe Kotval’s in Ottawa keep happening over and over again.

* Berry went on to run a massive fentanyl powder and pill trafficking ring from his Quebec prison cell with Daniel Vivas Ceron. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in North Dakota indicted both men in Operation Denial, a 2017 investigation into a fentanyl ring that spanned China, Canada and the U.S.

14-year-old Chloe Kotval died on Valentine's Day 2017 after taking a pill laced with fentanyl.

Counterfeit Oxycocet

The operation Project Javelin dismantled, however, is a little different. The scale of the operation is frightening and the fidelity of the counterfeit pills are notable, but it’s really the care the traffickers have taken with the packaging that stands out.

Drug traffickers usually transport counterfeit fentanyl pills in plastic bags. People who buy opioid pills or Xanax on the street generally are not buying whole bottles and are not usually concerned with the quality of packaging. The pills the Ontario Provincial Police confiscated, however, were in large pharmacy-style bottles with plausible labels that had the correct drug information number, information in French and English, and convincing branding. Compare these pictures of the counterfeit bottles from May,  a picture of a bottle of 500 ratio-Oxycocet (now called Teva-Oxycocet) from 2017 and a 100-pill bottle posted on Reddit this year.

Pills seized in Arizona, 2018 (Source: Maricopa County Sheriff's Office)

The counterfeits look legitimate. The one clear discrepancy is that the company only sells Oxycocet in 100 and 500-pill bottles—something that an average person would be unlikely to check before buying.

Project Javelin took millions of fentanyl-laced pills off the market, and we’re deeply grateful. we’d like to thank the Ontario’s Provincial Police; regional police in Durham, Peel, Toronto, York and Halton; the real manufacturer, Teva Labs, for assisting with the investigation; and Canadian pharmacists who protect people from deadly counterfeit drugs like these.

Sources for this week's video and blog

Ate Em all,” Reddit, r/SICKBOYZ/, posted January 2020.

Rachel Browne, “Quebec Inmate Who Allegedly Ran Fentanyl Ring from his Prison Cell, Faces Extradition to the U.S.,” Global News, November 13, 2019.

Chinese National and Eight Others Indicted in North Dakota in ‘Operation Denial’,” U.S. Department of Justice, October 17, 2017.

“Drug Shortage Report for TEVA-OXYCOCET,” Drug Shortages Canada, June 25, 2020 and July 9, 2020.

Karen Howlett, Justin Giovannetti, Nathan VanderKlippe and Les Perreaux, “A Killer High: How Canada Got Addicted to Fentanyl,” The Globe and Mail, April 8, 2016.

Pills Laced With Fentanyl Found Near Teen Who Overdosed, Police Confirm,” CBC, February 28, 2017.

Jason Proctor, “Accused in Kelowna Fentanyl Bust Was Former Hells Angels 'Middleman',” CBC, September 14, 2016.

Summerside Police Seize Pills Found to Contain Fentanyl,” Journal Pioneer, May 15, 2020.

Teva-Oxycocet,” Teva Canada.

Three Charged After Largest Fentanyl Seizure in Ontario History: OPP,” Durham Radio News, June 18, 2020

Matthew Trevithick, “Man Charged After 1,902 Fentanyl Pills Seized at London’s Airport: Police,” Global News, July 10, 2020.