Health Canada Scrambling to Regulate W-18, a Drug 100 Times Stronger Than Fentanyl

Here's why that matters.

by Allison Tierney
Apr 22 2016, 6:39pm

Fake OxyContin pills like those pictured above usually contain fentanyl. However, when pills like this were seized during a bust last year in Calgary, Health Canada found a different deadly substance within: W-18. Photo via RCMP

Health Canada is now rushing to regulate W-18, a drug that was first found being sold as counterfeit blue-green OxyContin pills last year in Calgary.

Though the first confirmed drug bust in Canada of W-18 was carried out in August 2015 and yielded 110 pills that were originally thought to contain fentanyl, it took about four months before Health Canada released its analysis confirming the existence of the unregulated, previously little-known deadly drug, which is 100 times stronger than fentanyl and 10,000 times more potent than morphine. Though this comparison in potency might be difficult for someone who has not used opiates to quantify, you can also think about it in following way: trafficking a substance that is much more powerful than another is going to make it significantly easier to smuggle or put in the mail. In that sense, W-18 could be more lucrative for drug traffickers than fentanyl.

On April 20, police in Edmonton confirmed that they had made the second seizure on record in the province of W-18. Four kilos of W-18 in powder form were found in the Alberta city back in December 2015—once again, four months had gone by before the public was notified.

In neighbouring British Columbia, which has a notable history with the opiate trade, RCMP also confirmed last week that W-18 had been found in the province.

"We believe W-18 would be coming from China," Martin Schiavetta, Staff Sergeant with the Calgary Police Service Drug Unit, told VICE earlier this year. "Certainly organized crime is behind the importation of fentanyl, and I would make the connection that W-18 would be the same."

Last month, a man in Miramar, Florida was sentenced to ten years for importing fentanyl, but even though he also was caught with about 2.5 pounds of W-18, he was not charged in relation to it since the drug is currently unregulated in the United States. This situation is similar to the conundrum Canada is currently facing, since the drug has yet to be regulated under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Though W-18 seems to be used similarly fentanyl, it is not an analogue of fentanyl. Fentanyl and its analogues are already regulated under this act in Canada. Health Canada currently plans to make W-18 a Schedule 1 drug, which would make its unauthorized use illegal.

W-18 may currently be coming from China, but it was actually first developed in Canada by a scientist named Ed Knaus at the University of Alberta in Edmonton in the 1980s. Knaus's patent expired in 1992, and now, the drug he helped to create is on the streets of the same city in which it was developed. "We were really looking to make a non-addictive analgesic or painkiller; that was kind of our goal," Knaus told Maclean's in February. "It doesn't make me feel good that people have picked this up."

In 2014, there were 120 deaths for which fentanyl was held responsible in Alberta. Last year, that fatality number nearly doubled, prompting the Alberta Law Enforcement Response Team to deem fentanyl the "biggest drug trend" of the year. However, now that the deal W-18 has been proven to exist in the province and elsewhere, the opioid crisis affecting Alberta and other parts of North America has become even more complex.

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