By Terry Gotham
I try not to use Burners.me as a megaphone, but as I read about this substance & how it was being covered in the media, I needed to make an exception. To be clear, we have no evidence of this substance being found or consumed at Burning Man, but I believe it will become a problem in the painkiller consuming community on the West Coast over the next 18 months. W-18 is a novel analgesic that was patented as the 18th in a 32 compound series by a trio of Canadian researchers in 1984. First flagged by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs & Drug Addiction in 2014,W-18 started turning up in prescription oxycodone pills seized by Canadian law enforcement in early 2015. It’s been banned by China, but the reasons why are unclear. The news stories on it started to pile up in April, so started digging. I found two scoops of sloppy reporting and a shocking lack of real information.
Initially, the media had me panicked, but things didn’t add up. Any time someone tells you a drug is “10,000x” more powerful than some other drug, that person either doesn’t understand drugs or math. If you tell me there’s an unstudied chemical showing up in pill seizures in Calgary, I’m scrolling past your headline. If you tell me there’s an opiate 10,000x more powerful than morphine or 100x more powerful than fentanyl showing up in North America, I’m taking a break to read what you have to say. No one actually explains how they arrived at that figure or where it came from. It’s not on the W-18 wiki page, but there are a couple amusing citation requests for us “show your work” kinda folks.
When they say “not verified” they’re not kidding. W-18 turns ups nothing remotely relevant in PubMed, repository of academic biomedical research published globally. Formally: 1-(4-Nitrophenylethyl)piperidylidene-2-(4-chlorophenyl)sulfonamide, it doesn’t even process correctly within the search parameters. Google Scholar is similarly flummoxed, only returning the patent for the compound & a potential application for treating opiate withdrawal using a patch on the skin (Can we please? Not using this drug, but a patch for opiate withdrawal?). I was able to find a nice summary on the total lack of W-18 research on The Dose Makes The Poison, a spectacular blog by a forensic toxicologist.
Despite media reports and quotes from law enforcement officials, the pharmacological profile for W-18 is not established at this time. We have no data on absorption, distribution, metabolism, or excretion of the substance. We do not know on what specific receptors W-18 acts. We know nothing about receptor binding affinities. We know nothing of the acute effects of the substance. ~ForensicToxGuy
The toxicologist also managed to explain the 10,000x multiplier thing that the hyperventilating media stuck in their titles to get me to click. A single non-human study, has shown something so convoluted that I’m not even going to try to summarize it for you:
In that test, W-18 had an IC50 equal to 3.7 ng/kg and 50% inhibition. In the same test, morphine’s IC50 was equal to 38,000 ng/kg and 50% inhibition. ~ForensicToxGuy
Essentially, some chemical + animal test (known as a phenylquinone writhing assay) that’s used to determine weak painkiller-type properties IN MICE, was run on W-18 & morphine. This test jacks up a mouse with an irritant. The amount the mouse stops spazzing (because it’s in pain) after the test chem is introduced, is an indicator of how strong the effects of the compound. W-18, was way more effective at getting the mouse to calm down. Like, you needed 10,000 less chemical to get the writhing to decrease by the chosen amount. That, is the only thing we’ve conclusively determined about W-18. You can use way less of it to prevent a mouse from writing in pain than of what you’d need to use if you used morphine. As some of you may already be wondering, oh yea, there are plenty of non-painkillers that have the same effect, and no, this was never a test designed to determine painkiller efficacy in humans.
The fact that we haven’t studied it doesn’t mean it’s safe. What we don’t know, can hurt us. No one taking this stuff knows what the dose is, as there is no dose. Even the heads over at Bluelight aren’t touching this stuff and there are no trip reports on Erowid. We don’t know how long it lasts, whether it affects the same opioid receptors heroin, morphine or fentanyl do, or even what happens when we give this to mammals that have opposable thumbs. To underscore this, there are no confirmed fatalities associated with W-18 anywhere in the world. Fentanyl is mowing people down, heroin, morphine & the panoply of prescription opiates all have body counts, yet, a drug 10,000x “more powerful” than morphine, that first appeared on the radar in Europe in 2013, hasn’t generated a fatality yet?
W-18 is still 100% legal in the United States, while a Director General in the Canadian Healthy Environments & Consumer Safety Branch petitioned the government to schedule the drug in February. In March, a Florida man (yup), was busted for allegedly trafficking flakka & fentanyl. The authorities found 2.5lbs of W-18. While the judge & defense lawyer argued about legality & lethality, the writing is on the wall for everyone to see. These new drugs are going to keep getting invented or rediscovered from the annals of weird pharmaceutical development. If you make infinite money but go to jail for infinite years for slinging certain chemicals, but can make infinite money and go to jail for zero years if you sling novel chemicals, similar in function to contraband, we all know which way Adam Smith’s invisible hand is shoving the market. The chemical grey market will continue to synthesize around the global scheduling & substance control system, as the “dump truck of money” incentive remains on the table as long as the drugs people want are illegal. The new twist in this little dance is that now you can just throw untested but easily synthesized analogues into the pot. If one is a hit, you’re 10 steps ahead of the game. Most dealers won’t have a connection to compete with you, cops have never heard of it, users won’t be able to differentiate between what they wanted and what they got. Hell, it may not appear on most drug tests, even the ones they give you in the ER.
Opioid users of any stripe are vulnerable to a particularly vicious physical dependency & withdrawal cycle, so anything that can be used to stave off those symptoms is going to be consumed. Especially if you won’t go to jail if it’s found on you. As I’ve opined before, we need to stop treating drug users & dealers like they’re somehow any more mindless as the people who bought New Coke or exploding hoverboards. Information, treatment, options & a real evaluation of this stuff is the only way we’re going to move forward. Be safe, test your shit & don’t take something from randos at parties.