It seems nearly every day now a flood of new synthetic “designer” drugs hit the streets, making it nearly impossible for law enforcement to categorize and police them, substance abuse experts and researchers to identify and catalog them, and doctors to successfully treat their effects.
As everyone tries to keep up with the multitude of new synthetic drugs and the rise of fatal overdoses from well-known synthetic opioids like fentanyl and combination drugs like Gray Death that are immensely difficult to track due to their inconsistent chemical makeup, fear and misinformation are common.
This has been the case with W-18, an experimental compound that was tested in a Canadian academic research lab in the 1980s that began appearing as a designer drug in the 2010s.
When it was discovered in a drug raid in Calgary, Canada among pressed pills also containing fentanyl, the media jumped on it, proclaiming W-18 the newest deadly synthetic opioid. It was declared to be more than 100 times stronger than fentanyl, which can trigger an overdose just by absorbing a minute amount through the skin.
Now, more than a year after W-18 caused a media frenzy, we know much more about it, though certain aspects are still a mystery. So, what is W-18? And, does it really have more than 100 times the killing power of fentanyl?
For starters, W-18 is not a synthetic opioid, or any kind of opioid at all. Since it was originally synthesized to serve as an experimental painkiller (commonly opioids), a comparison was made between W-18 and morphine and its association with fentanyl, so researchers quickly assumed that it was also an opioid.
What further fueled the hysteria surrounding W-18 was the previously mentioned claims that it was so much stronger than fentanyl, an already terrifyingly deadly drug. This claim seemed to be proven true by the fact that naloxone, the drug administered by emergency responders to reverse an opioid overdose, had no effect on the drug.
However, experts soon became suspicious after studying W-18’s chemical makeup and found it extremely different from opioids such as morphine or fentanyl. In July 2016, a pharmacology study on W-18 revealed that it does not interact with the brain’s opioid receptors at all, producing none of the effects associated with opioids or other psychoactive drugs.
The reason naloxone was unable to reverse the effects of W-18 wasn’t that the drug was so strong, but simply because it wasn’t an opioid, and therefore was unaffected.
What We Know About W-18
As for the claims that W-18 was deadlier than fentanyl, drug experts have since repeatedly pointed out that there is no evidence of this and that it was likely fabricated by those illicitly making and selling the dangerous drug as a justification for substituting it for fentanyl in pressed pills made to look like Oxycontin.
W-18 was compared to morphine in the original 35-year-old lab experiments in the context that, while being used in trials to evaluate its use as a painkiller, it took 1,000 times less W-18 than morphine to stop mice from wincing as a pain response. People snowballed this into the claim that it was 1,000 times more potent than morphine and—by extension—100 times more so than fentanyl.
In the previously mentioned 2016 study; however, they were unable to replicate these results and did not even see any significant signs of pain relief in the mice used during their trials. Instead, mice that received doses of W-18 reacted by burrowing and tunneling into their bedding, which could be interpreted to mean almost anything, from feeling “high” to hallucinating or even just feeling sick.
So, if W-18 is not opioid and doesn’t act like an opioid, then what does it do?
While the 2016 study conclusively proved that W-18 had no interaction with the opioid receptors in the brain, either mouse or human, it does exhibit some small effects that, depending on the dosage level, could range from harmless to health risk.
Included in these effects are some extremely weak binding to some serotonin and benzodiazepine receptors in the brain, though not at significant enough levels to achieve a high based on flooding the brain with serotonin.
More importantly, it was also found to bind to the body’s cardiac potassium channel, which is responsible for controlling your heartbeat. This means that, potentially, if someone took enough of the drug, it could result in an irregular heartbeat and possibly more serious cardiac problems.
What We Don’t Know About W-18
While it seems like this is one of the rare and lucky cases in which a drug turns out to be not nearly as deadly and dangerous as it first appeared, there is still a good deal about W-18 that we don’t yet know.
The main mystery? How many overdoses or poisonings are happening as a result of W-18 abuse. There are two reasons for this: First, many people who overdose on W-18 are unaware that they even took it since it is now so often used as a substitute for fentanyl, so it gets reported as fentanyl or heroin instead.
Also, while W-18 can be detected by laboratory tests, many hospitals and emergency responders are unaware of the drug, and either don’t know to look for it or are unable to identify it.
In fact, while W-18 caused a massive panic in Canada, much of the United States is still largely unaware of W-18. Even the National Institute on Drug Abuse comes up empty on information regarding W-18.
Because we still know so little about W-18 and its potential side effects and dangers, even though it is not an opioid, drug experts are still advising caution, as it could carry yet-undiscovered toxicity.
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