This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
Health Canada has identified through scientific analysis that some pills being sold in Calgary as fentanyl—the typically blue-green, round fake OxyContin pills—actually contained a drug 100 times more potent than fentanyl. The discovery of this drug, W-18, which is being reported as a synthetic opioid with no known clinical use, could mean an even greater risk of overdose in Calgary for those taking pills marketed as fentanyl or fake OxyContin. This is the first time that W-18 has been confirmed to exist in Calgary.
W-18 is a novel psychoactive substance that comes in powder form, and likely derives from Chinese labs where little-known drugs and analogues of known drugs are mass-produced and sold online. It is 10,000 times more powerful than morphine and 100 times more powerful than fentanyl, greatly increasing the likelihood of overdose and death. When it comes to fentanyl, in 2015 alone, there were 213 overdose deaths in the province, according to Alberta Health, and about 21,000 of the round, blue-green pills were seized in Alberta.
The pills found to contain W-18 came from a search warrant in Calgary in August 2015 that yielded 110 tablets, which were then sent off for analysis to Health Canada. Results were returned to Calgary Police Service in mid-December.
"We believe W-18 would be coming from China," Martin Schiavetta, a staff sergeant with the Calgary Police Service Drug Unit, told VICE. "Certainly organized crime is behind the importation of fentanyl, and I would make the connection that W-18 would be the same."
Schiavetta said that while they were only given analysis showing a positive test for W-18 for three of the pills from the August search warrant, it is quite possible that more of the pills they seized also contained it. He also mentioned that the test for determining the presence of W-18 is extremely difficult.
Additionally, since pills like those containing fentanyl or W-18, also known as "beans" or "shady 80s" among users and dealers, are made in homemade labs (not by pharmaceutical companies), the actual amounts of drugs within the tablets can vary.
You can think of this issue with pressing pills as you would making a batch of chocolate chip cookies: The same number of chocolate chips aren't going to make their way into each individual cookie. "The problem with how fentanyl pills are manufactured is that there's no consistency. So one tablet may have one milligram of fentanyl, and then the next tablet made in the same batch could have three [milligrams]."
Fentanyl and its analogues are regulated under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act in Canada. And in October 2015, fentanyl and its analogues also began to be regulated in China. However, W-18 is not an analogue of fentanyl, and as such, it's not regulated under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act in Canada.
"It comes down to availability, accessibility… Here's a drug that's 100 times more powerful than fentanyl, but [dealers] really have no idea what they're dealing with," Schiavetta told VICE. "I don't think the criminal element has that much foresight [to think about killing off customer base]; I think it's about making money here and now, and they have no regard for the customers who they're selling the drugs to."
In 2014, 120 people died in Alberta due to fentanyl. In 2015, when that fatality number nearly doubled, Alberta Law Enforcement Response Team deemed fentanyl the "biggest drug trend" of the year.
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