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.''
Also on HuffPost:
Hardy and Amelia Leighton, both in their 30s, were found dead July 20, 2015, leaving behind their two-year-old son Magnus. Toxicology testing confirmed that the couple ingested toxic levels of fentanyl in combination with other drugs.
From January to May 2015, 54 deaths were linked to fentanyl. From July 7 to Aug. 7, 2015, fentanyl was detected in at least 12 deaths, said the BC Coroners Service. In 2012, there were a total of 15 deaths related to the narcotic.
Jack Bodie, 17, and a 16-year-old friend were both found unconscious in a Vancouver park on Aug. 1, 2015 in a suspected fentanyl overdose. The teens were rushed to hospital where Bodie was placed on life support but he died a day later. His friend recovered and was released from hospital. Police believe the pair took fake Oxycontin.
Police in Delta, B.C. said it's a miracle that no one died after nine people overdosed within a 20-minute period on what are believed to be drugs laced with fentanyl. Emergency crews responded to a series of nearly simultaneous calls from four locations about recreational drug users who thought they were taking cocaine.
Fake Oxycontin pills containing fentanyl are displayed during a news conference at RCMP headquarters in Surrey, B.C., on Sept. 3, 2015. Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more toxic than morphine.
The cheap synthetic opioid often added in drug labs to heroin or Oxycontin to make it more potent and fast-acting, according to police. (Pictured is a photo released by Vancouver police of packages of fentanyl which users thought were heroin.)
North Vancouver RCMP said they suspect the death of a 31-year-old man on July 31, 2015 is also linked to fentanyl. A relative found the man in distress and called police, but he died at the scene.
On Aug. 9, 2015, 16 people overdosed in Vancouver — including six in one hour — from pink heroin that police suspect was laced with fentanyl.
Mounties showed off equipment, pills, money and weapons seized from a counterfeit Oxycontin production facility in Burnaby in 2015. They said there was enough fentanyl pills to put 200 to 300 people's lives at risk. Riley Goodwin, 26, of Vancouver, has been charged with production and possession for the purposes of trafficking.
RCMP Cpl. Derek Westwick shows off seized pill making equipment during a news conference at RCMP headquarters in Surrey, B.C. on Sept. 3, 2015. Among the gear was a pill press capable of producing 18,000 tablets an hour, said police.
A member of the RCMP Clandestine Laboratory Enforcement Team is framed by pill manufacturing equipment while standing in a protective suit, of the type worn when dismantling drug production facilities containing fentanyl, during a news conference at RCMP headquarters in Surrey, B.C., on Sept. 3, 2015.
RCMP Cpl. Derek Westwick of the RCMP Clandestine Laboratory Enforcement Team, holds genuine Oxycontin pills, left, and seized fake Oxycontin pills containing fentanyl, right, during a news conference at RCMP headquarters in Surrey, B.C., on Sept. 3, 2015.
In October 2014, Vancouver police issued a warning about fentanyl masquerading as heroin. It caused more than 30 overdoses and one death that month.