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W-18, the Street Drug of the Moment

Written by: Francisco J. Rojas, Ph.D.

W-18 is a novel psychoactive substance and synthetic opioid that is showing up as a new street drug. In August 2015 Health Canada identified through scientific analysis that some pills being sold in Calgary as fentanyl actually contained W-18. The pills are also known as “beans” or “shady 80s” among users and dealers. The discovery of mixing W-18 into illegal fentanyl pills is significant. The white powder W-18 produces a heroin-like high, but W-18 is many times more powerful than fentanyl. This could mean an even greater risk of overdose and death for those taking pills marketed as fentanyl or fake OxyContin (oxycodone).

W-18 is not a concern limited to Canada. The drug has also been confirmed in the European Union and more recently, in the United States. In March, a 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 recent seizure of 4 kilograms of pure W-18 within a year in Canada, enough for hundreds of millions of pills, W-18 is likely to be playing a prominent part in drug fatalities in the near future across North America.

W-18 was made illegal in Sweden in January 2016. In Canada, the government has proposed making W-18 a Schedule I controlled substance, but it currently remains uncontrolled. The drug is not considered a controlled substance in the United States.

Scientists at the University of Alberta developed W-18 in the 1980s as a potential pain killer comprising the “W” series, which ran from W-1 to W-32. The series have since been used mainly for research and have never been commercially marketed. Out of the 32 formulations, W-18 was found to be the strongest, about 10,000 times as potent as morphine and 100 times as potent as fentanyl, the prescription opioid. Because no pharmaceutical company dared produce the too-strong drug, the chemical formula remained buried deep in the scientific files, forgotten and unused, for decades. Those days are now over.

W-18 is 1-(4-Nitrophenylethyl)piperidylidene-2-(4-chlorophenyl)sulfonamide. The compound is considered to be a potent opioid agonist with a distinctive chemical structure which is not closely related to other established families of opioid drugs. W-18 has never been used in humans, but would be expected to produce effects similar to those of other potent opioid agonists, including strong analgesia, sedation, euphoria, constipation, itching and respiratory depression which could be harmful or fatal.

Currently there is no test to detect W-18 in urine or blood. This means that there is no way to track drug overdoses on users if W-18 is being cut into other drugs. The availability of a test would certainly help to minimize the escalating death attributed to heroin. According to the CDC, heroin overdoses killed more than 10,000 people in 2014.

Also, despite the alarming news and concerns from law enforcement officials, the properties of W-18 in humans are not known. The mechanisms of action and on what specific receptors W-18 acts remain undefined, and there are no data on distribution, metabolism, and excretion of the compound. Access to these data will help to understand tolerance and dependence. At present we can only speculate that tolerance and dependence would be expected to develop rapidly based on the potency of the drug, which is of a similar strength to potent fentanyl analogues such as carfentanil. If that is the case, W-18 would most likely cause pronounced tachyphylaxis following repeated dosing.

Since the pills containing fentanyl or W-18 are made in clandestine or homemade labs, the actual quantities of drugs within the tablets are unknown. So here we have a drug that is 10,000 times more potent than morphine and100 times more powerful than fentanyl, but dealers and users have no idea what is they are dealing with. Clearly, there is a lot of scientific work that needs to be done. The lack of pharmacological and toxicological properties of the compound makes this new street drug even more potentially dangerous.

References (2016) (2016)

The New York Times, March 25 (2016)

The Globe and Mail, April 21 (2016)

Chemical and Engineering News, May 2 (2016)