British Columbia

B.C. addictions specialist warns against 'mass hysteria' but admits W-18 'very scary'

Mysterious W-18 is creeping into B.C.'s recreational drug scene, so experts warn users to take care, as there's no research to know how it acts and whether antidotes work.

Mysterious W-18 creeping into B.C., Delta police warned yesterday they found drug here

Fentanyl, pictured here, had the reputation as one of the deadliest street drugs available — until now. (Calgary Police Service)

A B.C. addictions expert is warning people not to become hysterical about W-18, but is urging drug users to protect themselves by taking tiny test doses of any opioid they buy illegally.

It's a very scary situation. We certainly don't know a lot about it quite yet.-Seonaid Nolan, addictions specialist, B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDs.

W-18 is a synthetic opioid painkiller developed in Alberta decades ago and abandoned, but now it's showing up again, and health officials are warning it's 100 times more powerful that Fentanyl, which has already become a health emergency.

Police in Delta yesterday warned people to be extra vigilant after they confiscated drugs containing W-18 after searching labs in Burnaby, Richmond and Surrey.

Be watchful when dealing with opiate overdoses, says Dr. Seonaid Nolan, scientist at the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS. (Charlie Cho/CBC)

A few tiny salt-like grains of fentanyl are enough to get a person high. W-18 is even more potent.

"It's a very scary situation. We certainly don't know a lot about it quite yet... there is the potential for it to have devastating consequences," said Seonaid Nolan, an addictions specialist and research scientist with the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDs.

"But you want to avoid mass hysteria or over-sensationalizing, but [drug users need to recognize] what you may be ingesting you never quite know," said Nolan.

100 times more toxic than fentanyl

Nolan urges addicts and users to take smaller test doses of any street drug they buy, to protect against taking the potentially deadly substance.

"See if the potency is what you are used to," she said.

W-18 can be smoked, snorted or injected and has similar effects to any other opioid, but specifics on the experimental drug are sketchy. 

Addictions experts are urging care:

  • Medical officials should be on the lookout for an opiate overdose, aware that it could be W-18
  • ​Even if patients present as negative, it could be false, as W-18 is so untested
  • Addicts need to take test doses, and carry Naloxone kits
This picture, purported to show a powder sample of W-18, appears on a website based in China, promising shipment to buyers: "Not for human consumption." (Smallorder)

Nolan says not many studies have been done and there is no clear understanding about why the drug is having a resurgence now after 30 years.

Lack of science done on mystery drug

W-18 showed up in Europe in 2013, then migrated to Canada, seized in Alberta house party busts in 2015.

Health officials were already urging addicts to carry Narcan (Naloxone) kits, to resuscitate in case of overdoses. The opiate-blocker can save people who overdose on Fentanyl.

But some harm reduction experts say it's unclear if Naloxone will have the same effect on people who overdose using W-18, as research on the drug is lacking. It's unclear if W-18 binds to the same brain receptors as heroin, morphine or fentanyl.

"Given the limited research that has been done on W-18 we can't know for certain, but there is no reason to believe that [Naloxone] wouldn't act like it does on other opiates," said Nolan.

University of Alberta professors developed the drug in the 1980s, but it was never lab-tested on humans.

Police say that testing is happening now — on Canadian drug users.