Opioids have been used for centuries for their analgesic and sedative properties. Some opioid compounds are found in nature, such as the opioid alkaloids found in poppy plants. In the past decades, however, pharmaceutical companies developed numerous types of synthetic opioids. Laboratory-derived opioids represent the bulk of prescriptions for opioid painkillers. Now, more and more potent opioids are being found on the illegal drug market. These are apparently developed in illicit laboratories in China and other countries. The latest opiate scourge to hit the streets is known as W-18 and is 100 times more potent than fentanyl.
What We Know About W18
In August 2015, law enforcement officials in Calgary, Alberta, made a routine drug bust that yielded 110 tablets. As part of the regular procedure, these pills were sent to Health Canada for their properties to be analyzed. The laboratory experts were astonished to find that the tablets contained an ultra-potent form of opioids that had never been seen on the street before. The compound in the pills is dubbed W-18.
W-18 is a synthetic opioid compound, meaning that it was created in a laboratory setting. The drug was actually developed 30 years ago by researchers in Edmonton, Alberta, who were seeking to create novel opioids that could be used in medical settings. W-18 was never picked up by a pharmaceutical company, but its chemical structure was published in medical journals. Authorities speculate that clandestine Chinese laboratories used this information to produce the W-18 tablets that have hit streets in North America.
A New Threat in the Fight Against Opioid Abuse
In Calgary, W-18 tablets were apparently sold as fentanyl, a schedule II prescription drug that is much stronger than morphine. Use of fentanyl has skyrocketed in recent years, leading to numerous deadly overdoses in the United States and Canada. Fentanyl remains a popular street drug and is often sold in the form of round pills that are blue or green in color.
Unlike fentanyl, which is used pharmaceutically, W-18 has no known clinical use. It is 10,000 times more potent than morphine and 100 times more potent than fentanyl. This makes W-18 an incredibly dangerous drug that could have lethal consequences.
Fentanyl itself is a frequent cause of overdose in the United States. The average dose of fentanyl is 125 micrograms, about the same as two grains of salt. With W-18 being 100 times more potent, that means that users cannot safely consume more than a tiny amount, perhaps just 1 or 2 micrograms, without suffering serious consequences. Given that the drug is produced in clandestine laboratories, it is unlikely that its creators are being careful about quality control. This means that individual batches of W-18 could have irregular amounts of the drug. Getting a bad pill could be fatal.
Harmful Consequences of W-18 Use
To date, no one has presented to the emergency room suffering from a W-18 overdose. However, the drug has only recently been discovered on the drug market. As its availability spreads, it is likely to cause major health problems among users. The typical effects of opioids include analgesia, euphoria, drowsiness, lightheadedness, fatigue, weakness, and slowed breathing. As a drug that is several orders of magnitude more potent than morphine, W-18 is likely to have an even more severe profile of effects than other opioids. Even at very small doses, W-18 could cause a person to stop breathing.
One of the most alarming aspects of W18 is that it so closely resembles fentanyl and other opioid pills. Unsuspecting users could purchase tablets containing W-18 and easily overdose from this much more potent drug.
More Effective Treatments are Needed to Combat W-18 and Other Opioid Drugs
With the arrival of W-18 on the street market, the risk of opioid abuse and overdose continues to climb. This makes it imperative for public health officials to help people suffering from opioid addiction to get help. Medical detox programs such as those offered by the Waismann Method Center allow addicted individuals to cleanse the opioids from their bodies in a controlled, medically supervised setting. For people experimenting with drugs as potent as W18, this medical detox is critically necessary to prevent adverse outcomes. Furthermore, treatment programs must provide a supportive aftercare environment to reduce the likelihood that a person will return to opioid use.