Beware of the Super-Drug

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In 2014, opioids including heroin and morphine were responsible for almost 28,650 deaths related to drug overdose in the United States–accounting for 61 percent of all drug overdoses that year alone.

Despite such staggering figures, the exponential growth in heroin usage is being quietly downplayed as a true epidemic. U.S. drug overdoses in 2014 were at their worst according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Sharp increases might loom in the not-so-distant future. There’s a new opioid that has reared itself in Canada and aims to take “Big H’s” place. To make matters worse, it’s far scarier than even the strongest heroin.

The inception of W-18 dates back to 1981, when chemists Edward E. Knaus, Brent K. Warren, Theodore A. Ondrus, combined W-15 (a previously created drug made by the same individuals and patented alongside W-18) with an amalgamation of fuming and concentrated nitric acids (most commonly found in fertilizers and rocket propellant).

Initially developed as a non-addictive analgesic (i.e. painkiller), the three chemists realized that their compound behaved more like an opioid, and demonstrated adverse effects.

It is considered 10,000 times more powerful than morphine and 100 times as potent as fentanyl. While morphine may be the better-known of the two, fentanyl is a far stronger opioid that, while used as an anesthetic and analgesic, is currently being distributed as a faux OxyContin in both Canada and the United States.

Its popularity has grown exponentially in recent years, and it was even named the biggest drug trend of Alberta, Canada, in 2015. To put these dangerous matters into context, Alberta law enforcement seized 21,000 fentanyl pills in 2015. Overdoses from the drug caused 270 deaths in that province alone, up from 120 the previous year.

Photo courtesy of the Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams/CP.

Though the chemists filed for W-18’s patent in 1982, drug companies wouldn’t pick up the product, and the patent lapsed in 1992.

No evidence has yet surfaced to elucidate whether or not W-18 has any potential for clinical use apart from what was intended in the original patent. Today, it is almost exclusively found in powdered form and used recreationally.

W-18’s existence as a mass-distributed product remained largely unknown until recently. In 2014, it was added to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction list of New Psychoactive Substances due to a surge in claims made for its use as a substitute for other recreational drugs.

A Canadian bust nearly a year later in August of 2015 resulted in the seizure of 110 pills of fentanyl. Some were discovered to contain W-18–an unforseen snafu which has caused a small stir and newfound interest in the “super-drug.”

According to Calgary Police, they believe that the W-18 found in the fentanyl pills may have originated in China, though sources can’t confirm since the seizure in August is the only instance in which W-18 has appeared.

Calgary Police Staff Sergeant Martin Schiavetta, who was the supervisor of the unit that seized the pills, told BTRtoday about its potential origins.

“We know the compound W-18, the powder form, can actually be purchased on the Internet from China, though we can’t prove definitively that the powder came over from China,” says Schiavetta. “It was reprocessed into tablets, some of which contained fentanyl, and sold.”

W-18 was infused into the fentanyl through a pill pressing process, which has become perhaps the most dangerous issue. Because they are largely homemade, there isn’t a defined amount of W-18 distributed per pill, and as such it makes it a lot harder to regulate how much is utilized by distributors.

Many of the pills seized by the Calgary Police Dept. were inconsistent in measurement, with some pills in the same batch measuring out as one millimeter, and the next pill measuring out with three millimeters of fentanyl.

The lines become blurred even further. While W-18’s potency is arguably the most significant property of the super-drug, it is also extremely hard to trace.

According to Alberta’s Poison and Drug Information Service, W-18 is not yet detectable in human specimens (blood or urine), given the very low concentrations that appear in bodily fluids. Given the fact that the opioid is pressed along with fentanyl (which will more likely show up in a screening), it becomes extremely difficult to trace if the amount of people who overdosed on fentanyl might have also tested positive for W-18 in their systems.

In response to its discovery in Canada, Sweden has elected to classify it as a dangerous product. According to The Public Health Agency of Sweden, it’s now listed as a narcotic under the synthetic opioids category. Unfortunately, not many other nations have made the same successful legislative strides.

Canada has policies against fentanyl as well as control over analogues regulated by their Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. The regulation does not currently pertain to W-18, however, because the drug was mixed into fentanyl in an isolated issue (so far), and as such, the two opioids cannot be considered analogues.

That being said, some preventative measures are in effect. The country has offered a proposal to add W-18 to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Adding it to a Schedule I classification of drugs would make it illegal due to both its lack of medical use and concerns regarding safety.

If approved, the penalty for an indictable amount of possessed W-18 is punishable by law with a prison term of seven years.

Trafficking or possession with the intent to sell, and production and exportation or possession with intent to sell, can both be punished with a maximum penalty of lifetime imprisonment.

The Canadian issue is largely contained and has raised considerable awareness. All high school students in Edmonton, Canada, have been warned about W-18; it has even become part of an Edmonton Police Service slide presentation about fentanyl.

The DEA has told “Maclean’s Magazine” in Canada that W-18 has been seized in drug investigations, but would not say when or where. If it is being pressed with fentanyl, and moved into the United States, it could appear anywhere–adding another notch to the already pre-existing opioid drug war.