For the second time in a year, police in Alberta have uncovered a drug called W-18, a synthetic opioid that's 100 times more powerful than fentanyl — and 10,000 more powerful than morphine.
Police in Edmonton announced Wednesday they seized four kilograms of the substance in powder form during a raid carried out in December during a fentanyl investigation. The powder was then sent to Health Canada, which confirmed on Tuesday that it was W-18.
Staff Sergeant Dave Knibbs told a press conference that this amount of powder could have produced hundreds of millions of W-18 pills.
Dr. Laura Calhoun with the province's health services department added that the discovery of W-18 comes amid a countrywide fentanyl crisis. The number of fentanyl-related deaths in Canada continues to climb; from 2009 to 2014 there were an estimated 655 deaths linked to fentanyl overdoses. In 2015 in Alberta alone, there were more than 210 deaths involving fentanyl use.
"Alberta Health services is currently tracking all opioid presentations to hospital emergency departments and in-patient units," she continued. "No matter what drug you use, fentanyl or W-18 may be hiding on it and it may kill you."
Last August, police in Calgary seized 110 W-18 pills, believed to be the first time police got ahold of the drug, which has no clinical use and is currently not regulated under Canada's controlled Drug and Substances Act.
'No matter what drug you use, fentanyl or W-18 may be hiding on it and it may kill you.'
W-18 is believed to come from labs in China that produce fake drugs and often sell them online.
"Certainly organized crime is behind the importation of fentanyl, and I would make the connection that W-18 would be the same," a sergeant with Calgary Police's drug unit told VICE earlier this year after the first round of W-18 was seized.
W-18 was first invented in the 1980s at the University of Alberta by a pharmacology professor, Ed Knaus, whose patent for it expired in 1992. Knaus, who has since retired, was alerted by the RCMP after they discovered the drug.
"It doesn't make me feel good that people have picked this up," he told Maclean's in February.
Last month, seven people, including a family doctor in Toronto, were arrested and charged with drug crimes for their alleged role in a fentanyl trafficking ring that involved moving the substance from Toronto to Sudbury, Ontario.
Opiate abuse has reached alarming levels in a number of Canadian cities that has left all levels of government grappling for a solution. British Columbia declared a public health emergency — the first of its kind in Canada — after fentanyl overdoses killed 200 people in three months. There were 474 apparent illicit drug overdose deaths in BC in 2015 — a 30 percent increase over the previous year.
One idea that's been put forward to combat the surge is to provide amnesty for anyone who reports a drug overdose to police or who calls an ambulance. Liberal Member of Parliament Ron McKinnon is trying to make that idea a reality through the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act.
"Lives are at stake. We need to get this bill through as quickly as possible," McKinnon said in a statement.
Similar legislation has come into force in 36 American states, as well as Washington, DC, but has never been enacted in Canada.
A 2015 report concluded that "barriers exist to calling 9-1-1 during an accidental overdose" and that "fear of the criminal justice system is the number one reason people would not call."
VICE News asked federal Health Minister Jane Philpott about how she plans on tackling the issue.
The minister listed three specific policies that the government needs to "do better at": public education, overdose surveillance, and prescriber guidelines.
For one, Philpott says, the public needs to be better informed about how addictive some pain medication can become. "We need to make sure that when people are given a prescription for opiates, there is always a potential for addiction," she said.
"We have a lot of work to do on data and surveillance," she added. "One of the real challenges in that is that there is no cohesive structure for reporting when opioid overdose have occurred in Canada, and the number of deaths associated with opioid overdoses is reported in a rather patchy fashion. We have some good data from certain provinces, but not across the country. That's not acceptable to me. I've asked my department to come up with some strategies we can use to do better at that."
Finally, she said, guidelines on how prescribers deal with opiates — how they're prescribed and how they're secured — haven't been updated in more than five years, and that needs to be something the federal government fixes.
Photo via Twitter