The Appearance Of “W-18": A Product Of The War On Drugs

The recent reports on the appearance of a previously unseen synthetic opioid known as “W-18" by the Calgary Police and Health Canada have raised some serious concerns and fears of overdose. The drug itself is pegged at 100 times more potent than Fentantyl, and 10,000 times more potent than morphine. But what is it, and why is it even here? Hint: The war on drugs plays a BIG role.​

In case you missed how this all initially came about, here’s a brief rundown as reported by Vice News Canada:

In August of 2015, Calgary Police executed a search warrant which resulted in the seizure of 110 tablets/pills which were sent off to Health Canada’s labs for analysis. By mid-Decemeber, Calgary Police had the results. Fentanyl was detected, but surprisingly, so was something else. Of the pills tested by Health Canada, 3 of them were found to contain “W-18", a very powerful synthetic opioid with no previous known use in humans. Fentanyl, a less potent opioid, is already wreaking havoc and leaving a trail of bodies in its wake; the more potent W-18 showing up on the street could be devastating. Martin Schiavetta, Staff Sergeant with the Calgary Police Service Drug Unit, told Vice News Canada that “while they were only given analysis showing a positive test for W-18 for three of the pills from the August search warrant, it is quite possible that more of the pills they seized also contained it.”

W-18 or 1-(4-Nitrophenylethyl)piperidylidene-2-(4-chlorophenyl)sulfonamide, was first synthesized in 1982 at the University of Alberta in Edmonton by the Chemists Knaus, Warran and Ondrus in 1981 as part of 32 other compounds. The drug itself (a white powder) is a analog of Fentanyl, and a highly potent opioid agonist with ‘unknown physiological and toxicological properties in humans’. In other words, this is one seriously potent opioid that hasn’t even been tested on humans, let alone actually ever used safely.

So what’s the point of dealing with an opioid so potent (remember, it’s 100 times more powerful than Fentanyl) that it’s difficult to even use safely?

As Dr. Evan Wood, the Director of Vancouver Costal Health told CBC News, “It’s not in a drug dealers interest to be killing everyone who is buying these drugs.” He’s right. Whether you sell dope or lemonade, you want your customers to keep coming back. So why use such a dangerous product at all?

The answer? Prohibition, or the ‘War on Drugs’.

As it turns out, a war on drugs is really a war on drug users. They are the true causalities of this war.

People use drugs. We’ve been doing it for centuries, and we’re still going strong. We, as humans, enjoy altered states of consciousness. This isn’t a news. As much as we’ve all been told “just say no,” we realize that abstinence isn’t exactly realistic.

Prohibition, or laws banning certain substances, does not stop the use of them; it simply means people are being jailed for possessing and using them. Since the substances of choice can not be obtained through legal means, a black market fills the void. This creates a number of problems, namely crime, violence, and unnecessary harm to drug users. The crime and violence are created through the total lack of accountability, repercussions, and conflict resolution within the black market; without these, dealers are forced to exert their own justice and protect their product.

In order to evade law enforcements ever growing eye, those involved in the drug trade must come up with continually evolving ways to sneak these substances in to various countries without being detected. Logically, the smaller and more potent something is, the easier it is for it to go undetected by law enforcement. So those involved are constantly looking for newer, undetectable products, and increased potency. Why try smuggling in an elephant when you can accomplish the same end sneaking in a mouse? The Fentanyl crisis is a perfect example of this. Police crack down on illegal prescription drug use, and in its place came the harder to detect and much more potent Fentanyl. Crack down on Fentanyl and what do you get? W-18, apparently.

When dealing with ever increasing potency, consistency becomes a very real issue. These pills aren’t made in pharmaceutical factories with trained personnel and quality control measures. It’s MUCH more likely that the unknown ingredients were all mixed up in a dirty bathtub, and then compressed together using a pill press in someones basement. The quality and precision measurements required to obtain a safe, consistent product are simply not available in makeshift factories.

“This W-18, it seems to be crossing over the threshold to where it would be undesirable to makers in clandestine laboratories because you would be dealing with something that is so minuscule in mass that it would have to be cut hundreds of times in volume with another substance as the substrate.” – Dr. Evan Wood, Director of Vancouver Coastal Health

In an ever-evolving game of hide and seek played by those involved in the drug trade and law enforcement, it’s the drug users who are becoming collateral damage. Substances have increased in potency so much so that its difficult for many drug users to even take them safely. Pills are being mixed and pressed in basement labs with unknown, unregulated, and unsafe ingredients. Users often have no idea what is in the drugs they purchase, what dose of the active ingredient(s) are contained within, or whether or not its safe to use.

If we ever expect to change this, and allow users access to a regulated and safe product, the war on drugs needs to come to a startling halt.