The experimental drug W-18 has resurfaced and is keeping law enforcement on high alert
In the 1980s, a team of scientists at the University of Alberta manufactured a series of experimental opioids. Their research concluded that one of the formulations, referred to as W-18, is approximately 100 times more potent than fentanyl which until recently, was considered to be the strongest painkiller on the market.
The drug was so powerful, that no pharmaceutical company would pick it up and its formula stayed buried and was almost forgotten until recently.
W-18 resurfaced in Calgary, Alberta, Canada in fall of 2015. Police seized 110 tablets of what seemed to be Oxycontin, but found something even worse. Authorities have confirmed the tablets were coming from labs in China, where laws for distribution are far more lax. The large majority of our country’s counterfeit narcotics originate from organized crime and labs in China.
Calgary police soon issued a warning to emergency room nurses and doctors of the drug’s dangerous side effects. Mark Yarema, medical director of Alberta’s poison control agency, said “One of the challenges that we’re going to have with this particular drug is that the labs that we would normally use currently can’t detect it.” This issue lies in the fact that it wasn’t on the radars of doctors or law enforcement until recently.
Months later, a South Florida man was found in possession of 2.5 pounds of W-18, which had been obtained from a lab in China, along with fentanyl. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison for smuggling fentanyl, but received no charges for W-18 because it is not yet illegal to possess in the U.S. Law enforcement has since found traces in Will County, Illinois and the drug has made its way into the Northeast.
W-18’s debut draws massive attention to China’s growing influence on the U.S. drug market. In fall of 2016, China banned 116 synthetic drugs, including fentanyl, fentanyl analogues and flakka, a drug similar to bath salts that led to a series of unusual arrests in Florida. Following the ban, flakka use in Florida rapidly diminished but Chinese chemists continued to sell viable alternatives to fentanyl, such as W-18.
Last year, Health Canada added W-18 to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, making it illegal to possess, sell, import or export. Canadian Health minister Jane Philpott states “”Substances like W-18 are dangerous and have a significant negative impact on some of the most vulnerable people in our society.”
As law enforcement continues to tighten down on the distribution of synthetic drugs into the U.S., officials at the local and federal level are recognizing the falls of our country’s drug policy and moving towards a public health-driven approach. These include expanding treatment options and improving access for those in need.
Northbound is a Joint-Accredited, 12-step treatment provider specialized in treating adults struggling with opioid addiction and co-occurring disorders. We offer detox, residential, outpatient and aftercare options to support them each step of the way in their early recovery.