Pubdate: Thu, 03 Mar 2016
Source: National Post (Canada)
Copyright: 2016 Canwest Publishing Inc.
Author: Tom Blackwell
Page: A1


A lethal opioid invented in canada has hit the streets and it's 100
times more potent than fentanyl

Toiling quietly in a University of Alberta lab, a group of Edmonton
scientists developed a synthetic opioid in the early 1980s with
jaw-dropping properties.

Tests indicated W-18 was 100 times as potent as fentanyl, a
prescription painkiller blamed for hundreds of overdose deaths across
Canada in recent years.

Never actually studied on humans or picked up by a pharmaceutical
company, the Alberta invention languished in obscurity for 30 years -
a forgotten chemical formula.

Suddenly, though, W-18 is back and causing a stir, as a fearful Health
Canada moves to make the drug a federally controlled substance -
illegal to sell, possess, manufacture or import.

The experimental medication, which is readily available online from
vendors overseas and in Canada, has surfaced here, in Europe and the
United States as a recreational drug, a new street narcotic of
unprecedented lethality. "Now we have another drug that we know is
here, that is 100 times more toxic than fentanyl," said Staff Sgt.
Martin Schiavetta of the Calgary police drug unit, which made Canada's
first seizure of W-18. "Of course, we're very concerned."

The emergence of W-18 also underscores an evolving trend in narcotics:
labs in China that find off-patent chemical formulas and make a range
of synthetic drugs - including versions of amphetamines, cocaine and
opiates - then sell them over the Internet.

Even a Toronto company that supplies research and law-enforcement labs
offers Chinese-sourced W-18.

Given the drug's origins, it's ironic where it first appeared on the
streets. Calgary police submitted a sample of 20 tablets seized last
August to Health Canada and got the results in December: three were
Alberta-designed W-18 - via China, though disguised as the less
hazardous oxycodone.

That deeply disturbs police, given the toll taken lately by fentanyl,
a powerful prescription opioid usually delivered in patches through
the skin. More than 270 recreational users suffered fatal overdoses
last year in Alberta alone, the central-nervous-system depressant
causing breathing to slow to a halt, then stopping hearts cold.

A few salt-like grains of fentanyl are enough for a single hit, said
Brian Escamilla, a California-based forensic chemist who has briefed
RCMP investigators on the synthetic-opioid threat. At 100 times the
potency, W-18's effect on humans has never been scientifically gauged,
but would clearly be colossal.

"They've never been tested on humans, until now, and these (users) are
voluntarily, or involuntarily =C2=85 doing it," he said. "We're seeing a
lot of deaths."

Canadians should not experiment recreationally with the drug, given
the "significant risk of overdose and death," said Sean Upton, a
Health Canada spokesman.

Of course, the prospect of addicts using and possibly dying from the
substance was far from the minds of Prof. Ed Knaus and colleagues at U
of A when they developed a string of drugs, their names all starting
with W, three decades ago.

The goal was to create powerful painkillers that were not
habit-forming, but it turned out they acted on the brain's mu-opiate
receptors, meaning they would actually be highly addictive, said Knaus
in an email interview.

The team still hoped the drugs might be of use for terminal cancer
patients, where addiction is not an issue, said the professor emeritus.

The W-drugs' patents eventually expired, however, with no company
choosing to develop the compounds.

Enter the Chinese labs, which have built a reputation in recent years
for producing synthetic versions of illegal narcotics, tweaking them
slightly to try to circumvent laws in such countries as Canada and the
U.S., Escamilla said.

In fact, W-18 is not expressly banned here.

Numerous online businesses offer to sell it for as little as $2 a
gram, a huge quantity given its potency.

"It is disturbing to learn that there are individuals in society who
will sell non-regulated compounds =C2=85 in spite of their danger," said

W-18 is also offered for sale by Toronto Research Chemicals, which
supplies thousands of drugs and other substances to universities,
research institutes, forensic labs and law-enforcement agencies.

TRC first listed the compound in 2014 - at $45 per milligram - and
would source it from China, but has yet to get an order for any,
company president David Dime said.

It's probably a good idea for Health Canada to make it a controlled
substance, though "all the paperwork" of obtaining the required
licence will make it harder to sell, he added.

Listing a controlled substance is a good first step, said Schiavetta
of Calgary police. But what is really needed is a crackdown on the
"thousands" of synthetic drug labs in China, and the import of their
products into Canada.
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