The Canadian government has banned W-18, the powerful street drug routinely decried as 100 more times stronger than fentanyl — but critics say it might do more harm than good in the battle against opioid overdoses across the country.
On top of that, experts are questioning the science behind the government's alarmist claims about just how potent it is, since they say there is no published evidence to support the assertion.
Health Canada announced Wednesday it added the substance to the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which prohibits anyone from possessing, selling, importing or exporting the drug.
"Substances like W-18 are dangerous and have a significant negative impact on some of the most vulnerable people in our society," Health Minister Jane Philpott said in a press release. "I am pleased with the swift action that Health Canada has taken to regulate this substance."
W-18, a compound developed as a pain reliever by researchers at the University of Alberta in the 1980s, was never sold commercially and has no known medicinal benefits.
In May, police in Calgary announced that a man was found dead from an overdose, and had W-18, fentanyl 3-methyl fentanyl (a substance 10 to 15 times stronger than regular fentanyl), and heroin in his system. According to investigators, W-18 is being imported to Canada, often online, from fake drug labs in China.
Over the last year, Alberta police forces have seized W-18 twice during drug raids — when it was technically legal. Last December, Edmonton police confiscated four kilograms of the drug in powder form during a fentanyl investigation, and Calgary police seized 110 W-18 in August, the first time any Canadian law enforcement is believed to have encountered it.
While the statement from Health Canada on Wednesday goes on to use the typical characterization of W-18 as a "synthetic opioid" that is "extremely dangerous and can be 100 times stronger than fentanyl," a number of drug experts say this might be inaccurate.
Bryan Roth, a pharmacology professor at the University of North Carolina conducting a study of W-18, told the Calgary Herald there is no scientific evidence that the drug is even an opioid, let alone that it's 100 times stronger than fentanyl.
"As far as I have been able to determine there's no scientific data on the compound, other than this single patent. And in the patent, it's really impossible to determine much about the compound," said Roth. "It could be a dangerous drug. We don't know."
'It could be a dangerous drug. We don't know.'
Health Canada did not immediately reply to a request from VICE News regarding its evidence on W-18. One of the first claims that W-18 is "100 times stronger than fentanyl" appears to have been made by the Calgary police in January of this year following a seizure of the substance.
Staff Sergeant Martin Schiavetta of the Calgary police praised Health Canada's ban of the substance as a necessary step in combating the proliferation of W-18.
"We hope that this discourages people from importing W-18 into Canada for distribution. We believe that it is a very toxic substance," Schiavetta said in an interview. He added he would like to see the federal government also impose a ban on unlicensed pill presses, as Alberta did earlier this year.
However, British Columbia Provincial Health Officer Doctor Perry Kendall takes a different stance and says that criminalizing W-18 will likely not make any difference, and could actually result in the creation of a stronger drug to replace it. His province recently declared a public health state of emergency — the first of its kind in Canada — over a spike in drug overdoses this year. In the first three months of this year, 201 overdose deaths occurred in the province, 64 of which were linked to fentanyl.
"They would have to ban W-18, and all of its analogues, and I doubt that would even keep it out of the market," Kendall told VICE News. "I'm skeptical about how much benefit it will have. It's good to keep it off the street, but I'm not sure this will help."
He warned that chemists will likely create new drug chemical compounds similar to W-18 and get around the prohibition that could end up being be "more deadly."
"It's hard to imagine a worse drug than W-18," he said. "But Health Canada adds drugs to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act routinely and all that happens is that chemists tweak it to make it slightly different than what's named. That's the framework of prohibition that we work in."
Kendall said he would prefer to see the government focus more on reducing the overdose problem instead of criminalizing illicit substances.
He pointed to France, where he says general practitioners can prescribe suboxone as an opioid replacement. "This has reduced overdose deaths there by 80 percent," said Kendall. "But here in BC, that ability to prescribe it is limited to a certain number of doctors."
Portugal is also a good example of a country that has limited drug addiction and deaths, he said. "There, they have decriminalized all drugs, and when you compare it to other countries, it has far less overdoses than countries like Canada where we have focused on making substances illegal. But this sort of shift in policy would require time."
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