Senior bureaucrats at Alberta Health were told about a massive seizure of a new street drug that's 10,000 times more potent than morphine and 100 times more potent than fentanyl six days before the public was told, documents show.
An Alberta Health official said in an e-mail dated April 15 that she has received information about the seizure of four kilograms of W-18, "so we may see increasing numbers of overdoses/deaths linked to W-18." In a follow-up e-mail on April 18, the official says, "please do not release this information to the public, as the file is still under investigation."
Copies of the e-mails, widely distributed to bureaucrats and police in Alberta, were obtained by The Globe and Mail.
The seizure of W-18 opens a new frontier in the battle against illicit street drugs. Medical experts worry that W-18, an opioid, is shaping up to be the next deadly synthetic drug. They are asking why Health Canada took four months to test the drug and why Alberta Health did not immediately warn the public about a significant health and safety risk.
The Alberta police agency at the forefront of the drug battle announced the seizure of W-18 at a news conference on Wednesday. Staff Sergeant Dave Knibbs with the Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams, known as ALERT, said police seized an unidentified white powder in Edmonton in December as part of an ongoing investigation into fentanyl. The powder had been imported from China, he said, and was seized before it had been prepared for street sale.
"We got it before it hit the streets, thankfully," Staff Sgt. Knibbs said. There was enough powder, he said, to produce hundreds of millions of tablets, and each one of those tablets could kill someone.
"If it were to become airborne in a setting like this," he said, "all of our lives would be at risk."
ALERT immediately sent the powder to a Health Canada drug lab for analysis in December. On April 8, Health Canada provided police with preliminary findings, showing that the powder had tested positive for 90-per-cent pure W-18, Staff Sgt. Knibbs confirmed in response to questions.
Laura Calhoun, a medical director at Alberta Health Services, the agency that oversees the province's health system, told the news conference that staff in her office waited until they received official confirmation in writing from Health Canada, which came on April 19, before making a public announcement.
David Swann, a physician and interim Liberal Party leader in Alberta, said he is surprised that it took Health Canada so long to test the drug and also for the provincial ministry to warn the public. "It's a mystery to me," he said.
Health Canada did not respond to requests for comment.
Alberta Health Minister Sarah Hoffman attempted to blame ministry staff for providing "inaccurate" information when questioned by reporters about the delay. In the e-mails, no one disputes that the drug seized was W-18, but the the wrong month for the seizure was initially cited.
"People were drawing some early conclusions, but it was only confirmed yesterday," Ms. Hoffman said. "The information was inaccurate, but obviously it was done with the best of intentions."
Edmonton physician Hakique Virani criticized the ministry for waiting until it had official confirmation. "The public-health duty is to mitigate human health risk when there are hazards likely present and time is of the essence," he said.
W-18, first developed in a University of Alberta lab in the 1980s, represents a more significant threat than fentanyl, which is also a synthetic opioid, Dr. Calhoun said. There is no way of tracking how many drug overdoses might be due to the drug, because there is no test available that can detect minuscule amounts of W-18 in someone's blood or urine, she said.
"Our message to the public is this: No matter what drug you use, W-18 or fentanyl may be hiding in it and it may kill you," Dr. Calhoun said.
This is only the second time police in Canada have seized W-18. Police sent a random sample of 20 pills for analysis after they were seized from a household safe in rural Calgary last August. Last December, Health Canada's lab results revealed that three of the pills contained W-18, an opiate that authorities knew little about.
The federal government is in the process of making W-18 illegal to import and possess; the Alberta government has asked Ottawa to accelerate that process. The size of the most recent seizure eclipses the one last summer and raises questions about how policy makers are handling Canada's epidemic of opioid abuse.
Illicit fentanyl, largely a product of organized crime, has its roots in Canada's abuse of prescription painkillers. A Globe investigation found that neither Ottawa nor the provinces are taking adequate steps to stop doctors from indiscriminately prescribing highly addictive opioids to treat chronic pain.
Editor's Note: The original newspaper version and an earlier digital version of this story incorrectly said senior Alberta bureaucrats were told of the seizure nearly two weeks before the public was told. In fact, it was six days. This digital version has been corrected.