01/13/2012 05:29 EST | Updated 03/14/2012 05:12 EDT

B.C. Ecstasy Deaths: PMMA, New Chemical, Detected In Five Ecstasy Deaths

Flickr: tanjila

VANCOUVER - Police in British Columbia are reluctant to tell the public what unique, colourful markings are on ecstasy pills suspected to be packed with a lethal additive linked to five deaths in the province over concerns users will believe they're sanctioning the rest.

The province's chief coroner said Friday toxicology reviews of 18 deaths related to the party drug since the start of 2011 found PMMA present in the systems of three men and two women.

But Lisa Lapointe said while some police agencies have been voluntarily handed samples of the suspect pills, they've decided against putting photos online.

"We don't want to give the impression that these are the tablets that are risky, and other tablets are safe," she told reporters.

"At any time, any tablet can be contaminated with anything."

RCMP and police in Vancouver and Abbotsford have all promoted the message that no drugs are safe, while shying away from providing specific details around tracking the substance's source or revealing what stamps the pills bare.

One criminology expert says now that word is out, the drug lords cooking up the fatal cocktail have likely taken care of the problem anyway.

"It's like a bad batch of coffee — it's not good for business," said Simon Fraser University Prof. Rob Gordon.

"They're not doing it deliberately, something has gone wrong with the formula. I would imagine whoever is behind it has hit a bit of a panic button and has stopped doing it."

The B.C. Coroner's Office pulled out the old tests this week after Alberta's chief medical examiner found PMMA, or paramethoxymetamphetamine, in five people who recently died in Calgary after taking what they thought was pure ecstasy.

Among five B.C. people who died since August after taking the laced ecstasy, three were from the Lower Mainland and two were from Vancouver Island, Lapointe said. The men were between the ages of 14 and 37, the women were ages 17 and 22.

All but one person had taken multiple pills and had at least one other substance in their systems, along with ecstasy's key ingredient, MDMA.

Families of victims have been notified of the new finding, but Lapointe hasn't yet determined if it's "relevant" to go back and investigate previous years' deaths. The compound didn't show up in 13 other ecstasy-related deaths over the past year.

"PMMA is a rare drug, it's something that we haven't seen before in B.C. in relation to our ecstasy-related deaths, and so we don't routinely test for it," Lapointe said, adding that will now change.

Health officials say PMMA is much more toxic than MDMA and can overheat the body, leading to brain and organ damage.

Two B.C. people have died after taking ecstasy since the new year, one of whom had PMMA in their system, Lapointe said.

The chemical was likely trafficked through Vancouver's ports like other synthetic drug ingredients that are mixed together in makeshift labs in the Lower Mainland, RCMP Sgt. Duncan Pound said in an interview earlier this week.

The province's access to the Pacific Rim, the origin of many chemicals, makes the region a manufacturing hub. Product is distributed north and east.

Police dismantled more than 30 drug labs last year and will likely continue tackling the illegal industry through that strategy, rather than launch a specific PMMA investigation, Pound said.

RCMP did not return calls for comment on Friday.

Const. Ian MacDonald, with Abbotsford Police, said forces are sharing information and working collectively with the coroner and health authorities on the matter. The Abbotsford force is actively investigating the recent ecstasy-related deaths of two women in their jurisdiction.

"The presence or absence ... of PMMA, it's not completely irrelevant, it's a meaningful fact," he said, but noted it doesn't change the nature of the police investigation.

"We were investigating to determine the source and supplier regardless."

It's not yet known if PMMA was involved in those cases, he added.

PMMA has been associated with a large number of deaths across the world, including in Israel, Denmark and Taiwan, according to the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse.

Research and policy analyst Tyler Pirie said he's not surprised by the finding, although he hadn't previously come across cases involving PMMA in Canada before.

"Ecstasy is often times adulterated or cut with other substances that are dangerous," Pirie said. "Whether that's PMMA or perhaps LSD or ketamine, or just simply caffeine, it's putting individuals at risk."