CALGARY — It's the fear of the unknown that's a major concern for police in Calgary about the powerful street drug W-18 and whether it was responsible for a recent death.
A toxicology report was ordered for a 35-year-old Calgary man found dead of a drug overdose at a hotel in March.
The Office of the Medical Examiner concluded that W-18 was present in his system, along with heroin and 3-methyl fentanyl — another more toxic form of fentanyl.
Unclear which drug to blame
But it's not clear whether W-18, a powerful opioid 100 times stronger than fentanyl, caused the death.
"As far as which one resulted in the person's death, we cannot say,'' Calgary police Staff Sgt. Martin Schiavetta said Friday.
"W-18, 3-methyl fentanyl could result in a person's death independent of each other.''
The drug comes from a "W-series'' of opioid compounds first discovered at the University of Alberta in 1982. There are 32 compounds with W-18 being the most toxic.
W-18 is not regulated
W-18 is not currently regulated under the Controlled Drug and Substances Act and can be manufactured and bought freely.
Schiavetta says W-18, like Fentanyl, is being produced in China, with a majority of the drugs coming through ports in B.C.
He said there is no easy way of determining if W-18 is present in other street drugs and what affect it can have on an individual.
"There's a lot of research going on both in Canada and the United States looking at what W-18 does to the person's brain. Does it react the same as an opioid? Does it react differently? I think the message is unclear at this time,'' Schiavetta said.
"Does it react the same as an opioid? Does it react differently?"
He also said it's frustrating for police because there is no easy way of determining if street drugs contain W-18, which represents an even more significant threat than other opioids such as fentanyl.
Those who are taking drugs are playing "Russian roulette'' every time they take a pill, Schiavetta said.
"This is a drug...that does not discriminate. Two-thirds of our deaths are in suburban communities. This is a drug that can affect any family in our community,'' he said.
"It does not allow for drug experimentation. Your first tablet could be your last.''
Schiavetta said the medical examiner's office will be going through past overdose autopsies to determine if W-18 may have been present.
"Your first tablet could be your last.''
The drug is difficult to detect, said Dr. Graham Jones, chief toxicologist in the medical examiner's office.
"A preliminary screening test for W-18 does not exist at present and therefore it is not possible to detect in blood unless its presence is suspected,'' Jones said..
"The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner continues to work on developing a test that can identify small amounts of W-18.''
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