W-18, The High-Potency Research Chemical Making News: What It Is And What It Isn’t

A reportedly ultrahigh-potency street drug called W-18 has been garnering increasing press coverage since it was found in August 2015 in three of 110 pills thought to be fentanyl that were seized in a drug bust outside of Calgary. The western Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia had already been suffering from illegal trade in the potent opioid fentanyl, with 272 fentanyl deaths last year in Alberta alone.

In March, a Miramar, Florida man who was arrested for sales of fentanyl pills was also found to have two and a half pounds of W-18, procured from China with the help of a Canadian man imprisoned near Montreal. Then in mid-April, authorities announced that they had seized four kilograms of pure W-18 in Edmonton last December.

If you’ve heard of W-18, it’s probably been from sources such as Vice and this week’s Washington PostThe popular press is describing W-18 as a synthetic opioid that’s 10,000 times more potent–or deadlier–than morphine and 100 times more potent than fentanyl.

That’s not exactly correct–or it’s at least not proven to be correct. Research chemicals that end up in the illicit drug trade rarely have any human pharmacology and toxicology data behind them. In fact, we don’t even know if it’s really even an opioid.

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