12/04/2013 03:48 EST | Updated 02/03/2014 05:59 EST

Business is booming for online synthetic drug trade

A credit card and a click of the mouse are all that’s required to get drugs delivered right to your doorstep — and it’s usually completely legal.

Synthetic-drug trafficking has moved far beyond the cliché of a drug dealer hanging out in a dark alley, and authorities have not been able to contain its proliferation.

Radio-Canada’s Enquête team contacted a Shanghai-based drug producer in China. Of the 100 or so different products he suggested, the Enquête team purchased 2C-I, a drug banned in a number of European countries but still available in Canada.

Three days later, the drugs arrived in the mail.

$25,000 a week for selling ecstasy 

It’s easy to buy illegal drugs from Quebec dealers over the Internet, too. Members of Enquête’s team met with a dealer who suggested all kinds of products: synthetic drugs and conventional narcotics from fringe Internet sites — sites that can be difficult to access, but on which one can buy weapons, false documents and drugs.

The dealer claimed he got the drugs from Quebec biochemistry students who manufacture synthetic drugs in secret laboratories and then sell them all around the world, making about $25,000 per week.

The dealer maintained that he received and sent drugs through the mail without any issues after outwitting customs agents.

“The profit margins are so high that it’s kind of stupid to sell pot or things like that when you can sell ecstasy. You make three, four, 10 times your money back on each sale,” the dealer says.

Chemists playing cat-and-mouse

Authorities have their hands tied. Once a drug has been banned, chemists transform the molecular structure to create a new drug. This new unknown substance is legal until Health Canada says otherwise.

For example, 2C-B has similar effects to mescaline and is banned in Canada. Underground chemists have removed the bromine atom and replaced it with an iodine atom to create 2C-I, the drug Enquête purchased online.

Last year, 58 psychoactive chemical substances, such as 2C-I, entered Canada.

Health Canada decides which substances are classified as illegal drugs by first checking to see whether there are cases of people abusing this drug; then it makes sure that industries in Canada don’t need the chemical.

Police stuck in a Health Canada loophole

Health Canada’s research generally takes about 18 months to complete, during which time the selling of the product is forbidden. However, it’s not classified as a drug in the Criminal Code, meaning that police can’t arrest sellers or consumers — because it’s technically legal.

“It can be a long time before substances are made illegal. For example, BZP (benzylpiperazine), we first saw it at the end of 2005. It took five years for it become illegal,” says François Collin of the Quebec City police force.

Synthetic drugs are dangerous and can be more powerful than “natural” drugs. It’s impossible to know what ingredients they contain because they’re usually made in illegal labs by people who aren’t actually chemists. An ecstasy tablet made today would be different from one made last week.

It’s a game of Russian roulette, in the end. Last year, 17 teenagers died in British Columbia and Alberta after taking what they believed to be MDMA. However, the chemist who made the drug replaced the MDMA with PMMA, an ingredient which is far stronger.