OTTAWA - The key ingredient in a controversial street drug linked to a Florida attacker who chewed off a man's face should be illegal in Canada by this fall, the federal government says.
Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq announced Tuesday that she is rushing the process to ban MDPV — a synthetic substance that has around since the 1960s, but is now being mixed to make what is known as bath salts.
"Let's be clear. These are not typical household bath salts. They are not the Epsom salts or the scented crystals that you find in many Canadian homes and pharmacies," Aglukkaq told reporters.
"These are drugs, serious drugs."
The drug, which can resemble the harmless bath additive, has gained notoriety since the vicious May 26 attack in Miami, where police shot and killed a man who tore his victim's face apart with his teeth.
"This drug, along with the behaviours associated to those who have been using the bath salts, are a serious concern to the police and many others in our communities," said Fredericton police chief Barry MacKnight, chair of the drug-abuse committee of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.
He said the substance is hard to track in Canada, since it is legal here for now. But there are growing signs it is spreading, mainly in eastern Canada for now, but increasingly in Ontario and in the West.
"This is sending a strong message to Canadians and especially young Canadians, that this drug is harmful, while also allowing enforcement agencies to deal with those who victimize some of the most vulnerable in our communities — the young and those suffering from addiction — by selling this drug," MacKnight said.
In Florida, it wasn't clear why 31-year-old Rudy Eugene — a man described by family as a sweet person who didn't drink much or use hard drugs — suddenly attacked Ronald Poppo, 65, alongside a busy highway, apparently without provocation.
Surveillance video from a nearby building shows Eugene pulling Poppo from the shade, stripping and pummelling him before appearing to hunch over and then lie on top of him.
A witness described Eugene ripping at Poppo's face with his mouth and growling at a Miami police officer, who shot and killed the attacker.
Media reports suggest police and medical experts believe the bizarre attack was fuelled by MDPV, which police say is usually marketed as a form of ecstasy.
For now, since ecstasy is illegal, police in Canada can seize bath salts if dealers are marketing the substance as ecstasy, said Cpl. Luc Chicoine, a pharmaceutical and synthetic drug expert with the RCMP.
But if it is masked as a plant food or potpourri, the police can't do much, Chicoine said.
"Even though they know it's a harmful drug, the gap in the law means they can't stop it," Aglukkaq added.
The effects of the drug are terrifying.
Experts say the drug mimics the effects of certain stimulants, causing agitation and increased heart rate and blood pressure, as well as paranoia, hallucinations and aggressive behaviour.
Reactions to the drug vary by individual, but generally, users feel isolated from reality and become very impulsive. They tend to overreact, often aggressively and violently, to sudden changes around them, Chicoine said.
He said it sells at the same price as ecstasy — about $10 a tablet, a bit more in the North.
Aglukkaq says the government intends to add the drug to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, placing it in the same category as heroin and cocaine.
Officials say the proposal needs to go through a 30-day comment period, and then go to Treasury Board in the form of a package of regulations. Treasury Board would then approve the changes and publish them in the Canada Gazette this fall.
Usually the process would take between 18 and 24 months, officials added. But police have been hearing about bath salts since 2010, and since the government saw this coming, officials say they were able to prepare in advance.
Once the changes are approved, activities such as possession, trafficking, possession for the purpose of trafficking, importation, exportation and production would be illegal unless authorized by regulation.
Aglukkaq said the changes would also allow police to act against suspected illegal activities involving these substances.
"We owe it to our children and our communities to remove these serious health threats as quickly as we possibly can," Aglukkaq said.