When nine pounds of an ultra-powerful painkiller called W-18 was seized by Canadian authorities last month, an Edmonton doctor tweeted it was "enough to kill every man, woman and child in Alberta about 45 times over."
Now, police departments in the Philadelphia region are on high alert for the drug after the Drug Enforcement Administration told them W-18 may have entered into the area’s heroin market.
The chemical, which can be mixed with heroin, has been described as "10,000 times stronger than morphine." Because of that potency, a tiny dose would be fatal. W-18 is likely manufactured in underground Chinese laboratories, the Drug Enforcement Administration is telling local police departments, and the drug remains unregulated.
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Narcotics officers in Philadelphia and surrounding suburbs like Bensalem and Camden, New Jersey, said in interviews this week they are well aware of W-18, but detectives haven't found any hard evidence of its existence in the local black market yet.
That hasn't stopped drug dealers from rebranding their heroin packets as containing W-18 in an effort to raise the appeal among drug users.
"The past few months, we've been aware of it," said Philadelphia police narcotics Chief Daniel MacDonald. "We haven’t actually come across it in and of itself. We’ve heard of people blending it with heroin to bolster it. The police lab is aware of it."
Still, MacDonald said, the Philadelphia police department's lab has yet to determine with certainty that W-18 has hit the streets. There is some speculation among the law enforcement community that W-18 may be undetectable to current standard opioid testing.
W-18 made its first appearance in the mainstream press last year when some pills containing it were found in a stache of fentanyl in Alberta, Canada. Much larger batches of the chemical have since been found in Miami and Edmonton.
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The drug itself has been around since the early 1980s. Its patent dates to 1984, according to a Forbes story on the drug last week. It was among 35 chemicals patented by pharmaceutical chemists that appeared to be painkillers in tests on mice. It's name is derived from the graduate student who created it and its position as the 18th chemical in the list of 35 patented at the time.
Bensalem police Director Fred Harran said his detectives also have been on the lookout for W-18 since the beginning of the year after warnings from the DEA.
"Heroin and fentanyl are still the biggest problems when it comes to overdoses at this point," Harran said. "It's very frustrating. Look, we know how to go tackle this problem better. We need to regulate prescription drugs harder. Our wiretap laws have not caught up with the technology out there. There are more overdoses in this country than deaths related to al-Qaida. I'm not saying the fight against terrorism isn't worth fighting. But this [opiod addiction] is a huge problem."
The increased potency — and deadliness — of drugs like fentanyl and W-18 doesn't deter users, police and health officials said. The opposite usually occurs.
"There's some allure to it because it's super strong," MacDonald said.
Whether it's present in the local market or not, the region is already dealing with an overwhelming opioid epidemic, according to Dr. Brian Work, a physician at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center who also works at Prevention Point in Kensington.
"People are dying from heroin in record numbers and fentanyl in large numbers," Work said. "It's hard worrying about the next thing down the pipe."
One detectives in Darby Township said the DEA's warning has been heeded, but he's hoping W-18 never becomes reality.
"We've heard it's some real bad stuff," Detective Cory Cooper said. "I could go a very long time without seeing it, and be very happy."