Calgary's chief medical examiner has confirmed Alberta's first death related to the synthetic opioid W-18, a drug that's 100 times stronger than fentanyl and 10,000 times stronger than morphine. News of the death comes as the province is already reeling from a fentanyl overdose crisis.
According to a police statement released Friday, officers were called into a hotel in south Calgary on the night of March 7 after reports that a 35-year-old man had overdosed. Emergency medical responders pronounced him dead at the scene, where drug paraphernalia and an unused naloxone kit — a kit to reverse opiate overdoses — were also found. Testing confirmed the man also had heroin and 3-methyl fentanyl, which is 10 to 15 times stronger than fentanyl, in his system, but it's unclear exactly which drug was the direct cause of his death. Police say the man had a long-term girlfriend and baby daughter.
His is the first reported death of its kind in the province, but it could also be the first in Canada.
"You are playing Russian roulette every time you use street drugs as it is," Staff Sergeant Martin Schiavetta said in an interview with VICE News. "It's extremely frustrating. We know that fentanyl has been killing people, and now we have 3-methyl fentanyl, and now W-18."
Dr. Graham Jones, chief toxicologist for Alberta's chief medical examiner, released a statement later on Friday emphasizing that although W-18 was present in the man's system, his office cannot confirm that it's the cause of death.
"In this case the quantity of W-18 was large enough to detect relatively easily, but a smaller quantity would have been much harder to identify. A preliminary screening test for W-18 does not exist at present and therefore it is not possibly to detect in blood unless its presence is suspected," Jones said in the statement.
The man's death happened after police in Edmonton seized four kilograms of W-18 in powder form during a fentanyl investigation last December. In April, Health Canada confirmed that substance was, indeed, W-18, four months after the police submitted it for testing. And last August, Calgary police seized 110 W-18 pills during an investigation. That's believed to be the first time police got their hands on the drug that has no medical function. Health Canada has been scrambling to ban the substance under the country's controlled drugs and substance legislation.
Police do not know whether the W-18 in this case was connected to the Edmonton or Calgary investigations, Schiavetta added, but that W-18 in all its forms is being imported from China.
Last month, Alberta banned unlicensed pill presses as a way to combat the growing fentanyl crisis. While Schiavetta praised the province's new pill press regulations— including steep fines and jail times for those who violate the rules — he said more is needed to combat the spreading opiate crisis.
"We need federal assistance, we need to regulate pill presses across the the country. We need continuity," he said. "This is something that's going to migrate east, absolutely, the profit margins are astronomical. And I believe that when these tablets are being processed, the people processing them have no idea if they are even processing W-18 or fentanyl."
Alberta's medical director of poison and drug information service added in the news release that W-18 is a much more significant threat than fentanyl and other opioids. "We are very concerned by this drug," stated Dr. Mark Yarema. "Our message to the public is this: fentanyl or W-18 may be hiding in the drugs you're using, and it can kill you."
From 2009 to 2014, there were around 655 reported deaths linked to fentanyl overdose. And in Alberta alone in 2015, there were 274 such deaths.
Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne