Fentanyl warning following Australia’s largest detection of deadly opioid

A blue-gloved hand holds a small jar of granulated fentanyl.

Editor’s Note: Pictures of the seizure are available via Hightail

The AFP has seized the largest shipment ever detected in Australia of the deadly opioid fentanyl, stopping more than five million potentially lethal doses of the drug hitting the streets, following a joint operation with the Australian Border Force (ABF).

More than 11kg of pure powdered fentanyl and 30kg of methamphetamine were hidden inside an industrial wooden lathe sent from Canada that arrived at the Port of Melbourne in December, 2021.

The AFP, ABF and the Department of Home Affairs have established a joint operation to identify those responsible for importing the fentanyl - due to the seriousness this criminality poses to the Australian community.

The AFP is seeking information from anyone with knowledge of the attempted importation and is warning the public about the dangers of the drug, which can be fatal from a dose of just 2mg - or about the same weight as two grains of salt.

Fentanyl is a fast-acting opioid that is highly addictive and acts on the same receptors in the body as heroin.

The drug is primarily used for medical purposes in Australia, but in overseas illicit drug markets it has been cut with heroin, often with fatal consequences.

Australian authorities have only ever detected illicit fentanyl importations in minor amounts - all less than 30g - with the first case in 2013.

The investigation into the importation began after ABF officers inspected a container in Melbourne on 3 February, 2022.

The officers detected nearly 60kg of powdered substances hidden inside military-style ammunition boxes concealed within a three tonne lathe.

AFP forensic officers initiated a two-week operation to safely remove and analyse the powder.

The operation to safely remove the drugs from the machinery involved multiple state and Commonwealth agencies including ABF and Ambulance Victoria, which was on standby during the extraction and deconstruction phase of the operation.

Forensic officers wore protective bio hazard suits during the delicate and complex task of removing the powder from the lathe to protect against any inadvertent skin contact with the drug, which could cause harm, loss of consciousness and even death. 

About 28kg of the powder contained fentanyl, yielding 11.2kg of pure fentanyl, equivalent to about 5.5 million potential lethal doses of 2mg. Forensic officers also removed about 30kg of methamphetamine, with an estimated street value of $27 million.

Fentanyl sold illegally in Australia usually occurs in the form of patches used for medical treatment, which have been stolen or diverted from legitimate medical supplies. There is no precedent to place a street value on a large, bulk amount of the drug.

AFP acting Commander Anthony Hall said it was known criminal syndicates across the world were lacing illicit drugs such as heroin with this synthetic opioid, creating a dangerous cocktail of substances.  

“People who use illicit drugs can never be certain what they are ingesting and this seizure highlights the potentially lethal game of Russian roulette they play. We don’t want to see Australia joining other countries in that deadly game."

“Drug extraction can always pose a risk but the lethality of fentanyl, even in small doses, required our forensic officers to wear bio-hazard suits and we had multiple ambulances on standby. Even in this highly controlled environment, there was a risk to our members’ safety.”

“Our concern is that if such a large amount of fentanyl was in the hands of Australian-based criminal networks driven by greed, it could have passed uncontrolled and hidden into the community with possibly deadly results.

“The interception of this amount of drugs would be a significant blow even to a well-resourced criminal syndicate, and prevents millions of dollars of drug profit flowing back into the syndicate to fund their lavish lifestyles or next criminal venture.”

ABF Commander Maritime and Enforcement South James Watson praised the ABF officers who made the discovery.

“This was a massive amount of Fentanyl. The excellent work of our officers prevented these deadly drugs from reaching our streets, which has undoubtedly saved many, many lives,” Cmdr Watson said.

“Fentanyl is an extremely toxic substance to handle as well as being a lethal drug to use. There is a fentanyl epidemic in many parts of the world today, resulting in thousands of deaths of users every year.  Our officers work tirelessly to prevent this harm from reaching our streets, as it is literally a life and death battle with these drugs.”

“The ABF work with its partners both here in Australia and internationally to ensure illicit drugs don’t reach our communities.”

Anyone with information about this matter is urged to call Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.

Note to media:

Media are encouraged to include help-seeking information in stories about illicit drugs to minimise any negative impact on people in the community. The following services provide people with access to support and information.

  • For free and confidential advice about alcohol and other drug treatment services call the National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline on 1800 250 015.
  • Access free 24/7 drug and alcohol counselling online at www.counsellingonline.org.au.
  • For information about drug and alcohol addiction treatment or support, go to www.turningpoint.org.au.

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