New Street Drug W-18 is 100 Times More Powerful Than Fentanyl

By John Lavitt 04/25/16

The synthetic opiate produces a heroin-like high and is hard to detect in toxicology tests.

New Street Drug W-18 is 100 Times More Powerful Than Fentanyl
Photo viaShutterstock

Given the extent of the opioid epidemic in North America, the emergence of the powerful synthetic opioid, W-18, is a cause for concern. So far, the drug has turned up in western Canadian provinces, most recently, as well as south Florida in the United States, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. A recent seizure of W-18 in Calgary marks only the second time it has turned up in the area in the past year, but the drug, considered to be 100 times more powerful than fentanyl, has authorities on edge. 

The latest seizure turned up nearly nine pounds of the powder drug in December in Edmonton, the capital of Alberta province, prompting health officials to issue a warning to emergency room doctors in the area of the drug's potentially fatal effects. And before that, in August, Calgary police discovered three pills containing W-18 in a seizure of 110 fentanyl pills. But the presence of W-18 in the batch was not confirmed until months after the seizure, with the help of Health Canada. CBC News calls W-18 a "Frankenstein" street drug, referring to its synthetic chemical composition which makes it difficult to detect. 

"One of the challenges that we’re going to have with this particular drug is that the labs that we would normally use currently can’t detect it," explained Mark Yarema, medical director of Alberta’s poison control agency, as reported by the Calgary Herald. "And even if there are fatalities related to W-18, it’s not clear right now that the chief medical examiner’s office is going to be able to always find it either."

According to the DEA, W-18 has turned up in places like south Florida, where nearly three pounds of W-18 powder was seized last fall, along with fentanyl. And preliminary reports from Philadelphia suggest the drug is being cut with heroin and cocaine, according to the Herald.  

W-18 was first produced by chemists at the University of Alberta in 1981 for its pain-relieving potential, according to CBC News. But as it has emerged on the black market, both on the street and the Internet, authorities suspect that China is a major source. "We believe W-18 would be coming from China," Martin Schiavetta, a staff sergeant with the Calgary Police Service Drug Unit, told VICE Canada. "Certainly organized crime is behind the importation of fentanyl, and I would make the connection that W-18 would be the same."

Authorities and health officials in Alberta are on high alert about the new drug scare. The chemical composition of W-18 is very similar to heroin, but since it is not exactly heroin, it is technically legal. This is how producers of substances like synthetic marijuana (known as Spice or K2) have bypassed laws prohibiting illicit drugs (such as actual marijuana): by tweaking the chemical structure and creating copycat drugs. This is why the man busted for W-18 in Florida was recently sentenced to 10 years in prison for trafficking fentanyl, but faced no penalties for W-18.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles with his beautiful wife, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.