Health Canada officials helped police dismantle a clandestine drug laboratory in Alberta back on Dec. 10. But it would take another four months before the public was told that a potent new street drug called W-18 was stashed in the lab.
The delays in testing the innocuous-looking white powder found in the lab and issuing a public-health warning about an opioid thought to be 100 times more potent than fentanyl have raised new questions about the response of government officials to Canada's mounting illicit drug problem.
On Thursday – one day after the Alberta police agency at the forefront of the battle against illicit drugs announced the seizure of four kilograms of W-18 – Health Canada provided The Globe and Mail with the following timeline regarding its involvement:
On Jan. 12, one month after the lab suspected of producing methamphetamine was busted, the RCMP asked Health Canada's drug analysis service to proceed with analyzing the products that were seized.
A spokesman for the Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams, which includes RCMP officers and is known as ALERT, did not know why police waited a month before asking for the analysis.
The white powder was one of 60 products discovered in the lab, a Health Canada spokesman said, "each of which needed to be analyzed separately."
On April 8, Health Canada's analysis revealed that two of the seized samples contained W-18, and officials in the department "immediately notified the RCMP regarding the preliminary results via telephone," the spokesman said.
Medical experts questioned why Health Canada did not also immediately notify officials at Alberta Health about the test results. Law enforcement officials first notified Alberta Health about the seizure of W-18 on April 12, said a spokeswoman for provincial Health Minister Sarah Hoffman. But Alberta Health officials waited until this Wednesday – one day after they received official confirmation in writing – before warning the public about a significant health and safety risk.
"To me, finding four kilograms of an unidentified white powder is the sort of thing that requires urgent attention on the part of provincial and federal authorities," said David Juurlink, head of clinical pharmacology and toxicology at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto.
This is only the second time police in Canada have seized W-18, a synthetic opioid that represents a more significant threat than fentanyl. Police sent a random sample of 20 pills for analysis after they were seized from a household in rural Calgary last August. Last December, Health Canada's lab results revealed that three of the pills contained W-18, an opioid that authorities knew little about. Police and health-care workers have been on alert for W-18 since then.
Perry Kendall, Provincial Health Officer in British Columbia, said in an interview that just knowing W-18 is in the country means street drugs are potentially more dangerous. He declared a public-health emergency in his province last week after a surge in drug-related overdoses, and said he would like Health Canada to immediately notify provincial health agencies about its test results.
"I think having an alert system to public-health officials is a good idea," Dr. Kendall said. "I think it would be a useful component of an overdose reduction strategy."