“To put in perspective, this is enough to kill every man, woman, and child in Alberta about 45 times over.”
~ Edmonton public health doctor Hakique Virani, after police seized 4 kilograms of W-18
Over the last few years, efforts within the Washington State medical community aimed at curbing the misuse of prescription opioid painkillers and reducing the number of associated overdose deaths have begun to show signs of success. Both treatment admissions and fatal overdoses due to pain medications are down.
But that success is coming that an unexpected cost, as desperate substance abusers are turning to other opioids in order to feed their addiction. Statistics from the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute at The University of Washington show that the abuse of –and overdose deaths from -other drugs such as heroin and fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 100 times more potent than morphine, is increasing dramatically:
- In Seattle, the number of heroin-related deaths have more than tripled since 2009, and are at their highest since at least 1997.
- In 2014, heroin was the most common primary drug of choice for people entering treatment.
Now, a 30-year old, once-forgotten powerful synthetic opioid compound has made its way back to North America and threatens to pose a danger that dwarfs the hazard of almost any other drug heretofore seen.
Meet W-18, the synthetic opioid that is 100 times stronger than fentanyl and 10,000 times more potent than morphine.
Everything You Need to Know About W-18
Researchers at the University of Alberta created W-18 as part of an entire series of drugs—W’s 1 through 32—that were being developed for their potential to relieve pain. W-18 was the strongest of the series.
The drug was patented in 1984, but because of its extreme potency, it was never developed by any pharmaceutical company. It had no use beyond scientific research, so W-18 was largely forgotten, outside of medical journals.
It was rediscovered a few years ago by a chemist working at a Chinese drug lab, and soon, it was being developed for sale to customers around the world seeking a powerful heroin-like euphoric high. By 2013, W-18 was appearing as a recreational drug in Europe.
W-18 Creates a Unique Set of Challenges
Addicts who want to abuse W-18 are hoping to take advantage of a loophole that means that the drug is technically legal. Because of its unique formulation, W-18 is not yet against the law in the United States.
In Canada, W-18 was just added to the country’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act on June 1, 2016
Also, the formulation makes it difficult for medical personnel to help someone experiencing an overdose because there were currently no drug tests that are capable of detecting W-18 in a person’s urine or blood.
This means that there’s no way to know if W-18 has been cut and mixed into other drugs. Some experts believe that this is already happening, making W-18 at least partially responsible for the rise in heroin-related deaths.
Even worse, a memo given to Edmonton emergency room doctors in April says that there is “little evidence” that naloxone, the life-saving opioid overdose antidote, is effective on W-18.
Epidemiologist Jim Hall, of Florida’s Nova Southeastern University, says, “This is the deadliest drug trend I’ve seen in 31 years.”
Hall also believes that new legislation should be enacted that closes the loophole exploited by synthetic drug manufacturers, thereby curtailing the practice of constantly changing formulations in order to escape detection in routine drug tests and circumvent the law.
“That once again shows a reason to explore other ways of banning substances, not just by chemical structure, but by their pharmaceutical action in the brain,” opined Hall.