Drugs

Powerful New Gray Market Opioid Makes Oxycontin and Heroin Look Like Child's Play

W-18 is an obscure research chemical, but it has begun to find its way into recreational drug markets. Beware.

"Shady 80s" seized in Alberta, 2015
Photo Credit: Twitter

A new synthetic opioid has appeared in North America, and it's killer stuff. The compound, known as W-18, is a hundred times more potent than fentanyl, which itself is a hundred times more potent that morphine, making it 10,000 times more powerful than the classic opiate.

The research chemical companies that offer W-18 use the following product information: "W-18 (Item No. 15480) is an analytical reference standard that is classified as an opioid. It has been shown to be an extremely potent analgesic in the mouse phenylquinone writhing assay (IC50 = 3.7 ng/kg, compared to 38 µg/kg for morphine. The physiological and toxicological properties of this compound in humans are not known. This product is intended for forensic and research applications."

The drug is obscure. Although it was actually first synthesized in 1984, it first began popping up in drug user forums like Bluelight back in 2012, but even there it wasn't drug user reports being posted, but questions about the substance and expressions of amazement at its potency. It's so obscure that it is not listed as a controlled substance under US law, and it's not even on the DEA's radar as a "drug of concern."

The first—and as far as can be determined, only—time W-18 has shown up in recreational drug markets was last fall in Canada. In an August raid, police in Calgary seized 110 tablets of "fake Oxycontin," or "shady 80s" (genuine 80 milligram Oxycontin tablets are marked with "80" on side and "OP" or "OC" on the other) that were supposed to contain fentanyl. In December, Health Canada reported back that some of the pills contained W-18.  

In 2014, the province reported 120 fentanyl-related deaths. Last year, with the arrival of the "shady 80s," that number nearly doubled to 213. It's unclear how many of these fentanyl-related deaths actually involved pills containing W-18.

The tablets that tested positive for W-18 were part of a much larger batch of "shady 80s" available in the area last fall. Police reported seizing 21,000 of the blue-green pills in the province last year.

Calgary Police Service Drug Unit Sgt. Martin Schiavetta told Vice News last month that while only a handful of pills from the August raid had tested positive for W-18, it was possible more of the pills also contained it. Testing for the presence of W-18 is extremely difficult, he added.

"We believe W-18 would be coming from China," Schiavetta speculated. "Certainly organized crime is behind the importation of fentanyl, and I would make the connection that W-18 would be the same."

But you may not have to go to Chinese sources to obtain W-18. As noted above, the drug is offered for research purposes from companies like Cayman Chemical, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Since it is not a controlled substance, it doesn't get the "RESTRICTED PRODUCT This product is a controlled substance and special processing is required before shipping" warning on the product page.

In fact, one can even place an order for it just like any other form of online commerce, but the chemical company isn't going to sell it to just anyone. In response to a request for an order of one milligram of W-18 ($49), the company replied:

"Cayman Chemical is a biochemical company dedicated to providing quality research grade material to accredited pharmaceutical, academic and medical research institutions. Our products are manufactured at Cayman Chemical for research purposes only and are not approved by the FDA for over-the-counter use in humans or animals as therapeutic agents.  If you can please tell me which research institution you are affiliated with, we may be able to proceed with your order.  We do require that all new customers complete an account application that we will provide upon return of the requested information about your institution. *Please be advised that we do not deliver to residential addresses, P.O. boxes or warehouses, only businesses and institutions. *

W-18 is now out there. Whether it's coming from criminally-linked Chinese drug labs or is leaking out of the North American research chemical market, this highly-potent opioid has hit the streets. Watch out for those "shady 80s" and approach with great caution. 

 

Phillip Smith is editor of the AlterNet Drug Reporter and author of the Drug War Chronicle.

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