Why are federal authorities so concerned about a record fentanyl shipment found in Melbourne?

Federal authorities have found an “extraordinary” amount of fentanyl hidden inside machinery in a Melbourne warehouse.

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) and Australian Border Force (ABF) have seized 11 kilograms of the opioid — a record in Australia — and 30 kilograms of methamphetamine that arrived from Canada late last year.

The AFP says the smuggling attempt is “outrageous” and are warning of the dangers of the deadly opioid.

While it’s standard for authorities to voice concern about large shipments of illegal drugs, fentanyl poses unique risks to those who take it — which can be, in some cases, unknowingly.

What is fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a fast-acting synthetic opioid, meaning it’s made in a lab — not derived from the poppy plant like natural opioids. It was developed as pain management for cancer patients.

The drug interrupts the way nerves signal pain between the brain and the body, so it can quickly and effectively block pain.

A plastic bag filled with drugs inside a metal case
The 11-kilogram shipment of fentanyl is the first seizure in Australia that’s more than 30 grams.(Supplied: AFP)

Fentanyl is normally prescribed as a patch, but can also come in the form of a lozenge, lollipop or intravenous injection.

But it’s highly addictive because of its ability to bind to the brain’s receptors that control pain and emotion.

What’s fentanyl used for?

Fentanyl is prescribed for chronic cancer pain, post-surgery and other forms of severe pain, nerve damage, back injury and major trauma.

The Alcohol and Drug Foundation says it’s about 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine.

Illicit fentanyl users most commonly extract the opioid from patches and inject it.

A rusty colored piece of machinery
The fentanyl and methamphetamine was found hidden inside an industrial wooden lathe, which is a machine for shaping wood or metal.(Supplied: AFP)

But the AFP says overseas criminal syndicates are known to lace other drugs with fentanyl, often with fatal consequences.

That’s another reason why authorities have been alarmed by the discovery in Melbourne of such a large quantity in powder form.

What does fentanyl do to the body?

Opioids slow down the messages going between the brain and the body to suppress pain. They create a sense of relaxation and sedation but can cause confusion, nausea, unconsciousness and death.

“Fentanyl can have a very serious effect on your respiratory system,” the Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association’s Sam Biondo says.

“It can slow down your breathing, it can slow down your blood pressure. It can slowly sedate you to the point where you start going blue because of lack of oxygen and then you’re in a very, very serious situation and in danger of dying.”

Two officers wear full PPE and masks as they look at industrial machinery.
Officers were forced to wear bio-hazard suits as they inspected the shipment.(Supplied: AFP)

The National Institute on Drug Abuse says the brain can get used to opioids, making it harder to feel the same pain relief or pleasure.

It says withdrawal symptoms include muscle and bone pain, disrupted sleep, vomiting and severe cravings, which make it difficult for many people to stop taking it.

How deadly is fentanyl?

The Alcohol and Drug Foundation says fentanyl affects everybody differently based on their weight, health, drug history and the amount taken.

It says just 2 milligrams can cause a fatal overdose — about the same weight as two grains of salt.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse says some drug dealers are mixing fentanyl with heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and MDMA, because it takes very little to produce a high so it’s cheaper for them to make.

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