Friday, April 22, 2016

Authorities warn Alberta doctors they may start seeing W-18 overdoses after cops seize powerful drug

Authorities warn Alberta doctors they may start seeing W-18 overdoses after cops seize powerful drug

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Fentanyl pills are shown in an undated police handout photo.
Fentanyl pills are shown in an undated police handout photo.
Emergency room doctors in Calgary and Edmonton have been warned about a massive police seizure of an illicit drug suspected to be W-18, which is 100 times more powerful than the deadly drug fentanyl.
An internal memo issued by the head of emergency medicine in Edmonton, obtained by Postmedia, warns a provincial law enforcement agency seized four kilograms of W-18 in Alberta’s capital city. The memo says physicians may see rising numbers of overdoses and deaths from the toxic drug.
The policing agency – the Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams — declined to comment.
“I would ask that you forward this to your clinical groups,” Kirstie McLelland, the emergency department head in Edmonton, says in the memo to emergency room doctors and support staff.
McLelland also notified Alberta’s Poison and Drug Information Service, which sent a similar warning to emergency room doctors in Calgary.
Despite these warnings, health officials are severely limited in their ability to track the lethal drug, said Mark Yarema, medical director for the poison control agency.
There have been no reported overdoses in Alberta, but major labs that conduct comprehensive drug screens in Calgary and Edmonton are incapable of testing for W-18, Yarema said. This means doctors can’t confirm suspected cases as patients show up at emergency rooms.
Alberta’s chief medical examiner has obtained capacity to test for W-18 in the bodies of overdose victims, but because tiny doses of the drug can kill, even this test may not be able to detect W-18, Yarema said.
“One of the challenges that we’re going to have with this particular drug is that the labs that we would normally use currently can’t detect it,” he said. “And even if there are fatalities related to W-18, it’s not clear right now that the chief medical examiner’s office is going to be able to always find it either.”
W-18 is a synthetic opioid with a different chemical composition than fentanyl, a drug linked to nearly 500 overdose deaths in Alberta since 2012, but both drugs are suspected to produce similar euphoria. They are also both available for sale on the Internet and yield massive profit margins for traffickers.
Colleen De Neve / Postmedia
Dr. Mark Yarema, Medical Director of Alberta's Poison and Drug Information Service
A spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration in the United States said clandestine labs in China will likely continue producing fentanyl, W-18 and similar drugs that can be made by tweaking their chemical composition.
“We’re going to see more of it (W-18),” Russell Baer said.
First produced by researchers at the University of Alberta in the 1980s, W-18 has recently emerged in the illicit drug trade across North America. Three pills seized by Calgary police in August contained W-18, the first known seizure in Canada.
Since then, the drug has turned up in British Columbia, but Calgary police haven’t seen any other traces.
“That’s something we’re monitoring on a daily basis,” said Staff Sgt. Martin Schiavetta of the Calgary police drug unit. “We’re very concerned about the drug, and we’re very concerned it may be in Calgary.”
The Drug Enforcement Administration said there is inconclusive reporting on how widespread the toxic drug may be in the United States. But there have been seizures, including 1,300 grams of W-18 powder confiscated in south Florida in September.
The agency also pointed to preliminary reports from the Philadelphia area suggesting W-18 is being cut with heroin and cocaine.
China is believed to be a major source of synthetic drugs flooding North America’s illicit drug trade. In October, the Chinese government listed 116 synthetic substances, including fentanyl, as controlled drugs, making it illegal to produce and sell them, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
We’re very concerned about the drug, and we’re very concerned it may be in Calgary
Baer, the agency spokesman, said clandestine labs in China continue to produce illicit fentanyl. But officials have also noticed a shift as manufacturers in that country have turned to making other drugs not controlled by the Chinese government, including W-18.
These labs are also tweaking their fentanyl formulas to duck the new laws and continue exporting highly addictive drugs to lucrative markets in Canada and the United States, Baer said.
W-18 is highly powerful, with doses measured in micrograms, or one millionth of a gram. It’s also relatively inexpensive and returns big profits to dealers, similar to fentanyl, Baer said.
To put things in perspective, the wholesale price of a kilogram of heroin in the U.S. is $5,000 to $7,000, an investment that would reap up to US$80,000 in revenue from street sales, Baer said. A kilogram of fentanyl, meanwhile, generally costs up to $5,000 when purchased in bulk, but can generate upwards of US$1.2 million in revenue on the street.
“Instead of selling heroin in quarter-ounce, half-ounce quantities, you’re talking about micrograms of these substances that are 100 times more potent than fentanyl,” Baer said.

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