Canadian police fight a Frankenstein in new W-18 street drug

The only thing worse than having a killer in your midst is not knowing it is there. That’s why some experts say Canada’s bad trip with W-18 this week reveals an urgent need for authorities to catch up to the trend that brought it here: synthetic drugs.

Delay identifying new W-18 drug shows need for better battle plan on synthetics

This picture, purported to show a powder sample of W-18, appears on a website based in China that promises to ship it. 'Not for human consumption,' reads the caption. (Smallorder)

The only thing worse than having a killer in your midst is not knowing it is there.

That's why some experts say Canada's bad trip with W-18 this week reveals an urgent need for authorities to catch up to the trend that brought it here: synthetic drugs.

It took Alberta's elite policing squad, ALERT, one month to send the strange white powder discovered at a clandestine lab for testing.

It took three months for Health Canada to figure out what it was: W-18, a deadly experimental opioid not intended for human use, resurrected for the recreational drug circuit.   

A Frankenstein.

And as rogue chemists get better at producing and shipping W-18 through our borders, some say Canada cannot eliminate the monster drug — without also tackling its family.

'We thought it was meth'

A Health Canada spokesperson said Alberta police called their office to help dismantle the lab on Dec. 10 last year, then on Jan. 12, RCMP requested that Health Canada test the unknown white powder.

Three months later, on April 8, Health Canada officials said they confirmed it was W-18 and notified the RCMP "immediately."

On April 19, a memo to emergency room doctors warning them about the discovery of W-18 in Edmonton was leaked to media. On April 20, ALERT held a press conference to tell the public about the threat.

In hindsight it's always crystal clear- Mike Tucker, ALERT

ALERT spokesperson Mike Tucker admitted that the December lab takedown involved  "unusual circumstances." While an ongoing investigation prevents him from saying much more, he did explain RCMP used a special team wearing haz-mat suits to clear out the lab.

Tucker isn't saying exactly why the team waited a month to send the then-unknown W-18 sample for testing. But he said the delay was nothing out of the ordinary.

"In hindsight it's always crystal clear, right? But at the time, this was simply seized as an unknown substance. It was actually suspected as being some form of methamphetamine," Tucker said.

"What's being added to cocaine as a buffing agent, a lot of time, are unknown white powders. So for us it's pretty difficult to make that determination to say this is a high priority drug file, versus let's just say something else that's being submitted to the lab in a homicide case."

In an email, the Health Canada representative said the W-18 sample was "one of 60 products" discovered in the lab, which needed to be analyzed separately.

Tucker said an investigator was waiting for official confirmation during the nearly two-week delay between the identification of the drug by Health Canada and telling the public about the new W-18 discovery in Alberta.

"This [April 8 confirmation] was a phone call that was received by our investigator indicating it was W-18," Tucker said. "Our investigator interpreted that that was a preliminary opinion. So on the 19th we received official confirmation in writing that it was W-18. We made the decision to hold the news conference the next day."

Too little, too late?

Alan Hudson, an associate professor with the department of pharmacology at the University of Alberta, called W-18 one of the most dangerous drugs in a whole spectrum of synthetics, or analogs. They often mimic the chemical structure of traditional street drugs — save for a compound or two — and that slips them through the rules.

Others include Spice or K2, a synthetic marijuana product, and fentanyl analogs.

This file photo features ALERT officials with items seized in February drug bust in Alberta. (Dean Holtsman/CBC)
"It really is a big challenge for the police to keep on top of this," Hudson said. "There are various people who look for new potential recreational drugs. They go through old patents and look for old opioids, and see how easy they are to synthesize."

W-18 was invented at the University of Alberta as part of a spectrum of experimental painkillers in the 1980s, then patented by three men — one of whom still lives in Edmonton and no longer picks up the phone when media call.

It was never adopted as a clinical drug, never tested on humans, and is not on the list of controlled substances in Canada — which means technically it can be sent freely through mail. And it can be found for sale on websites, typically based in China.

"Obviously somebody in China has picked up on the fact that W-18 is quite easy to make in large quantities and they're trying to sell it to the North American market," said Hudson.

But because of its potency, Hudson believes W-18 has taken the synthetic drug trend to a whole new danger level. And he said that's why law enforcement — and lawmakers — need to look more toward the source.

"The importation of W-18 from China needs to be stopped as soon as possible. If any package were to be damaged, anyone coming into contact would face being overdosed with this drug immediately and would need immediate medical attention," Hudson said.

"You only need a tiny speck of W-18, which can cause respiratory depression and can kill you," he added. "It's just too potent to even consider using."

The killer we haven't discovered yet

Some regular drug users echo his words.

In a thread on an online discussion board called "Drugs-forum," a user called "name goes here" described serious concerns.

"The risk of a bad batch is so incredibly high, why take the chance?" the person wrote, pointing out the drug's strength (said to be 100 times more potent than known killer fentanyl) and calling it "an overdose waiting to happen."

But even if drug users don't seek out W-18 specifically, they could ingest it without knowing, now that it's on the market.

Like powerful fentanyl synthetics, W-18 may be used to mimic or extend batches of more common drugs, like heroin or OxyContin.

Delayed or not, the warning is clear.  

"No matter what drug you use, fentanyl or W-18 may be hiding in it," said Provincial Medical Director Dr. Laura Calhoun at Wednesday's press conference in Edmonton.

"And it could kill you."