SASKATOON – It was a word unfamiliar in many households across the nation but as 2015 unfolded it was one many families would never forget. In Saskatchewan there have been at least 30 fentanyl-related deaths since 2013 and there were 213 deaths in Alberta in 2015 alone.
Now officials are warning the public about W-18, a drug even stronger than fentanyl. The drug was first discovered at the University of Alberta in 1982 and only just recently by Calgary police during a drug bust last August.
According to police, 110 pills were seized at a home in Rocky View County believed at the time to be fentanyl. Test results from Health Canada have since confirmed three pills contained the drug W-18, a powerful synthetic opioid that may still be on the streets.
The drug is 100 times stronger than fentanyl and 10,000 times more potent than morphine.
“It’s so potent that regardless of how they cut it down and market it, you are going to end up with a situation somewhat similar to fentanyl where you’re going get a lot of people using it naively, overdosing and dying,” said Dr. Peter Butt, an addiction specialist with the Saskatoon Health Region in mental health and addiction services.
While the colour of the pill recovered by Calgary police has not been disclosed, police in Saskatoon say it doesn’t matter, it’s a gamble every time you take drugs.
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“When it comes to something like fentanyl or this new W-18, you have no idea what you’re taking and your first time, as we’ve seen, could be your last time,” said Det. Sgt. Dean Hoover with the Saskatoon Police Service.
According to law enforcement, W-18 is being produced in China then sent to the shores of British Columbia.
“All it takes is a chemist with access to the chemical structure and they can duplicate the compound,” explained Butt. The advantage for dealers to have illicit drugs that are more concentrated is they’re easier to ship and hide.
As for when it could end up in Saskatoon, it may be only a matter of time, according to Hoover, since 90 to 95 per cent of illegal drugs trafficked here are from the west coast.
“If it ends up here, we’re likely going to see deaths so yes we’re concerned.”
Current police protocol requires officers to send seized drugs for testing any time a case is expected to enter into a preliminary hearing or trial.
“We seize it as an exhibit and it’s sent to the Health Canada lab which is in British Columbia, they identify it for us and send it back, tell us if it’s a controlled substance or not and then we can charge or not charge from there.”
W-18 is not currently regulated under the Controlled Drug and Substances Act.
The big question is if it does come to Saskatoon how long will it take before we know it? Saskatoon police can’t currently track W-18; neither can RCMP in the province.
In an email to Global News the Health Ministry confirmed the Saskatchewan Disease Control Laboratory is aware of the potential and is working on developing a test for the drug but that could take up to three to six weeks.
The Office of the Chief Coroner relies on that same lab for test results that may confirm if there has been a drug-related death.
A Naloxone kit may work to reverse the drug in the event of an overdose but it may be more challenging given it’s potency.
“The more potent the opioid and the stronger it binds with the opioid receptors, the harder it’s going to be for Naloxone to dislodge it so it would take more than a less potent opioid,” said Butt.
If Naloxone was to wear off, which is more likely with W-18, a person could return to an overdose state. That happens approximately 30 minutes after it is first administered and why you need to seek immediate medical attention in the event of an overdose.