EDMONTON — Police and health officials in Alberta are raising the alarm about a dangerous drug called W-18 that is much more toxic than fentanyl, another synthetic opioid that has been linked to hundreds of deaths in Canada.
Staff Sgt. Dave Knibbs said police in Edmonton seized about four kilograms of a white powder drug in December and tests by Health Canada confirmed it is W-18.
Knibbs said W-18 is about 100 times more powerful than fentanyl and 10,000 times more powerful than morphine.
“Fentanyl has taken far too many lives across the province and W-18 represents an even more significant threat,” he said Wednesday.
The W-18 powder was probably imported from overseas and could have been made into millions of pills, Knibbs said. Small amounts of W-18 have previously been found in Calgary and British Columbia.
Dr. Laura Calhoun of Alberta Health Services said front-line health staff have been warned to watch for overdoses.
Calhoun said W-18 is not regulated by federal drug laws and has no clinical use.
“Our message to the public is this: no matter what drug you use, fentanyl or W-18 may be hiding in it, and they may kill you.”
Calhoun said W-18 cannot be detected by routine drug tests.
Police declined to comment on whether anyone has been arrested or charged as a result of the drug seizure.
Knibbs said it is not illegal to possess or distribute W-18 in Canada right now.
“It is an enormous concern for Health Canada and they are working diligently on it,” he said.
Health Canada officials were not available for comment.
The department’s website says it is proposing to include W-18 in the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and to food and drug regulations.
The website says W-18 is a synthetic opioid that was developed as a painkiller. It was patented in Canada and the United States in 1984.
“W-18 has never been marketed commercially and there is no known evidence demonstrating that W-18 has any actual or potential uses apart from scientific research,” reads the website.
“This included counterfeit tablets that had W-18 as the only active ingredient, but were made to appear like prescription oxycodone tablets.”
The Alberta government is calling on the federal government to take quicker action on W-18.
Alberta Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley and Health Minister Sarah Hoffman have written a letter to three Liberal cabinet ministers that encourages Ottawa to speed up its considerations.
“I am always hopeful that when it comes to life-and-death situations that we are moving at breakneck speed,” Hoffman said. “We wrote the letter as soon as we heard about just how toxic W-18 is, and it is incredibly toxic.”
The letter said Alberta would like to see tougher federal restrictions on fentanyl as well as rules that would restrict access to pill presses used to make street drugs.
Calhoun said W-18 is a huge concern and people who use any synthetic opioids should also have a drug called naloxone available, which can counteract the effects of an overdose.
There were 272 fentanyl-related deaths in Alberta last year. She said W-18 is far more dangerous.