06/24/2012 04:00 EDT | Updated 08/23/2012 05:12 EDT

Ecstasy In Canada: Feds Raise Danger Rating On Rave Drug While Health Officers Urge Drug Policy Reform


VANCOUVER - Glowsticks, fuzzy pants and DJ Johnny Fiasco were the recipe for a Calgary rave back in the late-'90s when it was Kevin's job to supply the key ingredient: white powder-packed capsules that stoked touchy-feely-dance vibes in partiers until dawn.

But after a Canada-wide RCMP bust cleared out stockpiles of ecstasy one August weekend in 1997, the 19-year-old dealer lost his usual source.

So he scooped up 200 pills from some guy in the back of a car, having no clue they were the hallucinogen PCP cut with horse tranquilizer.

"We ended up with a party full of sick kids," said the 34-year-old, who now lives in Vancouver and whose name has been changed. "We were pulling 15-year-old girls out of the bathroom who were puking their guts out, had no idea who they were, where they were, what they were doing."

Similar misadventure has repeated countless times in the ensuing years, the latest, a rash of 16 deaths across Western Canada in nine months from an ecstasy batch laced with PMMA, a chemical not previously seen here.

Several top public health officials are now proposing a rethinking of current illegal-drug policies they assert spurs on a global problem involving ecstasy, one that even the White House says is made in Canada, specifically B.C.

But the suggestion for dialogue about a careful, science-based crafting of new health-oriented regulations comes at the same time the federal government has taken the polar opposite course with its omnibus crime bill.

In mid-March, the class of drugs that includes the substance MDMA — considered the pure and original form of ecstasy — was bumped up to a Schedule I drug under Bill C-10, giving it heightened status alongside heroin and cocaine.

The boost has the health officers and other advocates of change warning the tough-on-crime approach will not curb street ecstasy's use or its associated dangers, but instead will further play into the hands of organized crime

British Columbia's Provincial Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall and colleagues argue the proliferation of dirty street ecstasy and ecstasy overdoses are a direct consequence of criminalization and prohibition.

They want a public conversation around combating its scourge, similar to the ongoing pot debate.

"We need to involve multiple viewpoints," Kendall told The Canadian Press this week. "And then we need, in an ideal world, to come up with a regulatory regime which would minimize many of the harmful impacts which I see in the current regulatory regime."

Police say street ecstasy is killing an average of 20 British Columbians each year.

Kendall said the drug's risks arise when users have no idea what dose they're taking, don't understand MDMA's known health effects and have no clue of whether the pills are actually MDMA or some other brew of toxic chemicals.

"This is a very emotive, controversial topic for a lot of people," he said.

"Do I see a consensus coming out of it in the short-run? No... But I still think that it would be a conversation that's worth having from an evidence-based perspective."

One "hypothetical" way users could obtain ecstasy, he said, would be through licenced, government-regulated stores, somewhat similar to present-day liquor sales. He said that under such a potential scheme, the drug would still be illegal to minors, and consumers would perhaps be permitted to only buy a certain amount each week or month. Promotional advertising would not occur.

He likened the scenario to the way booze was sold to him in Toronto in 1972.

"When I wanted to buy liquor, I went into a government-run store, there was a list of products on the wall. I went to a man who was behind the counter, he wore a brown overall," Kendall said in an earlier interview. "I wrote what I wanted on a piece of paper. He came back with a brown paper bag, and I left with my product."

Other possibilities for how sales might be structured include behind the counter, like the sales of nicorette gum, or by prescription — although Kendall said that option wasn't likely to fly with doctors because it wouldn't be for medicinal use.

Kendall is not advocating one particular solution, but believes society would benefit from a revised psychoactive drug-control system, he said.

"If society decided with its wisdom that it was going to address substances based on their inherent harms, you might well see both alcohol and a drug like ecstasy manufactured under strict controls and sold under strict controls," he said.

"I don't think the issue is a technical one. The issue is probably one of the political. How would you get society to look at it like that?"

Kendall has co-authored an open paper urging an evidence-based re-evaluation of federal illegal-drug policies with the provincial health officers of Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia. He also joined scores of B.C.'s physicians in signing a discussion paper in late 2011 that recommends all levels of government "review, evaluate and update their psychoactive substances related laws."

He and the host of doctors argue that implementing public health-oriented regulations would decrease usage rates, as has occurred in Portugal and the Netherlands. They say that just like ending the alcohol prohibition took booze out of the Mafia's hands, it would gut the gangs.

That would vastly reduce sales to minors, they contend, and prevent deaths because even if teens did use, they would more likely be getting a cleaner product.

"It means getting away from ideologically-based approaches," said Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief medical health officer, in a recent interview.

"I'm challenging the government to say we have to do things differently, because our current approach is clearly not working."

Since last July, 10 people in Alberta, five in B.C. and one in Saskatchewan have died from PMMA-adulterated ecstasy, and a slew of others have suffered non-fatal overdoses.

Arrests of two alleged small-time traffickers were made in February, though as recently as early May, RCMP in Penticton, B.C. were warning the toxic batch has surfaced there.

RCMP have targeted the domestic ecstasy inventory by raiding synthetic production houses and by cracking down on the supply channels of the chemicals that go into it. Investigators say those strategies have made some dents.

The police line is firm: no amount of ecstasy is safe.

The federal Conservatives' rescheduling of amphetamines such as MDMA generally means dealers now face one-year mandatory minimum sentences, producers face two years and harsher punishment will be meted out in instances of possession for trafficking or exporting.

An interview request and list of questions for federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson garnered a brief statement.

"These drugs are harmful to users and society and contribute significantly to violent crime," Julie Di Mambro, the minister's spokeswoman, said in a May email. "Our government has no interest in seeing any of these drugs legalized or made more easily available to youth."

But advocates say it's already in teens' hands, and the Tories' move will keep it that way.

Unlike a decade ago, pills on the street are much cheaper, Smartie-like tablets of pressed powder stamped with decals like the Olympic rings.

The same province stirring the pot on drug policy reform also happens to be North America's ecstasy kitchen.

B.C. has been fingered by the United Nations, the White House, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and the RCMP as a global manufacturing hub, where mainly Chinese gangs cook up the substance for wholesale distribution across international borders.

The gangs source the precursor chemicals — like MDP2P which comes from the sassafras plant — from connections in China, smuggling it through Vancouver ports, according to an 80-page report in January from U.S. President Barack Obama's drug czar. Vietnamese, Indian, Eastern European and outlaw motorcycle gangs are often traffickers.

"Marijuana and ecstasy remain the most significant Canadian drug threats to the United States," the Office of National Drug Control Policy said in the report.

It says that ecstasy tablets are no longer just MDMA, but rather a "cocktail of chemicals," as Canadian organized crime groups "demonstrate a willingness to utilize whichever chemicals are readily available to them."

Pills that mimic MDMA, resembling candy or children's vitamins and seized around U.S. schools, were traced back to Canadian sources, states the report.

The Blaine, Wash., port of entry, southwest of Vancouver, has led the country in ecstasy border seizures for the past five years, said Dave Rodriguez, director of the Seattle-based Northwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.

He said it's only within the past four years or so that Canada's organized crime groups began pumping out the drug in massive quantities, bypassing a former supply route through the Netherlands.

"They set up labs in British Columbia, they got in the tools and the dies and the formula and the expertise, so that they didn't have to export any longer, they just made it there," he said.

Four million ecstasy tablets were seized at the Canada-U.S. border in 2010, up from two million in 2006, said D.E.A special agent Jeffrey Scott in Washington, D.C.

He doesn't believe its regulation will reduce gang activity.

"If you take one substance away from them it's not likely that they're suddenly going to go run MacDonald's or go open a retail store," he said. "They're just going to shift to another illicit substance."

The border seizure number has dropped again in recent years, although a report from Rodriguez' agency states there is "no evidence" that MDMA production in B.C. has decreased. Ecstasy that does make its way down the west coast mostly ends up in southern California, he said, where the pills and B.C. marijuana are traded for Mexican cocaine that's then trucked back up north.

Those intimately familiar with the drug, dubbed "Dr. Death" in some circles, say they wouldn't touch the stuff today.

"For me, MDMA is white. It's not purple, it's not pink, it's not blue. It's fluffy, it smells like delicious licorice," said Kevin, who began capping the powder on his dining room table himself after the party poisoning incident, but has long since stopped.

"But you don't find that anymore. It's just a bunch of crap that some dude in his basement, who owns a print shop, is scraping into pills — pressing them and then selling them for 50 cents a piece."

He believes crushing the drug's illicit aura would benefit society.

"You can ask any drug dealer," he said. "They will tell you that if they have a good product — and a bad product that's cheaper — 85 to 90 per cent of their clients, they're going to spend the extra money for the product that's going to be clean."