The Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams (ALERT) seized four kilograms powdery substance in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada in December 2015. Lab results identifying the substance as W-18, a synthetic opioid, were returned April 19, 2016, with public notification occurring on April 20, 2016.
In December 2015, ALERT seized what turned out to be W-18 during a fentanyl investigation. Samples of the then-unidentified powdery substance were sent to Health Canada for testing, with final results of the testing sent to ALERT on Tuesday, April 19, 2016. Due to W-18 not being illegal in Canada because it isn’t covered on the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, arrests are not forthcoming for possession of the substance, although other charges are being considered.
It is yet unknown why testing of the powdery substance required four months to complete. What is known is that W-18 is a synthetic opioid, said to be 100 times more potent than fentanyl and 10,000 times more potent than morphine. Jim Hall, an epidemiologist at Nova Southeastern University in Florida, who has studied substance abuse for more than 30 years said this about W-18, “This is the most deadly drug trend I’ve seen in 31 years.”
Staff Sgt. Dave Knibbs of the ALERT team explained, “Theoretically, a four-kilogram seizure of W-18 could have produced hundreds of millions of illicit pills. Fentanyl has taken far too many lives across the province and W-18 represents an even more significant threat.”
Marliss Taylor, program director of Streetworks in Edmonton that provides outreach services to drug users said she wasn’t surprised to learn that W-18 was available on the streets because some of the program’s outreach workers had already heard about the presence of the powerful drug from drug users.
Jennifer Vanderschaeghe, executive director of Turning Point, another organization that provides services to drug users in Edmonton, echoed the remarks of Taylor, adding, “When seasoned drug users, people who inject drugs and have for five, 10, 15 years, come in and say, ‘This stuff is scary,’ our job is to listen to that.”
Health officials aren’t certain whether naloxone (Narcan), an opioid antidote, will work in the case of W-18 overdoses as it does with heroin and fentanyl. Still, it is the only antidote recommended for use in a suspected W-18 overdose.
Drug users and dealers may not be aware of the potency of W-18 – or even its presence in illegally-made pills or powders. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid itself, was responsible for 272 deaths in Alberta in 2015. The exponentially higher potency of W-18 increases the likelihood that drug users may inadvertently overdose on the drug, leading to concerns of an even higher death toll in drug users.
Health Canada has proposed adding W-18 to the list of illegal substances in the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, with the Alberta government sending a letter on Wednesday, April 20, 2016 urging the same and asking that the process to do so be accelerated.
W-18 was first produced by researchers at the University of Alberta in the quest to create new pain relief medications. No pharmaceutical company was interested in buying the patent for W-18, made available in 1982. Since then, the patent has expired, making the information for creating W-18 available to interested parties. Authorities theorize that the current batches of W-18 are being made in laboratories in China and shipped to other countries.
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