Health Canada is taking steps to all but ban a new, halucinogenic party drug that it says is becoming increasingly popular, has potentially dangerous side effects and is essentially unregulated now.
The department is proposing to declare BZP and other members of the piperazine class controlled substances, making possession and trafficking in the drugs a crime except for purposes authorized by the government. The move, announced in a notice published Saturday, would effectively end the pills' current street status as the "legal ecstasy."
"These substances are increasingly being used recreationally for their stimulant and hallucinogenic properties," the regulator said in a statement. "Health Canada is ... concerned that these substances pose a risk to the health and safety of Canadians."
BZP offers users feelings of euphoria, alertness and energy, as well as hallucinations in larger doses. Reported side effects include appetite loss, nausea, moodiness, elevated blood pressure and rapid heart rate.
One Toronto-based distributor of BZP -- sold in pill form with benign names such as Peaq, Freq and Spun -- argued on Tuesday that he is offering a safe alternative to ecstasy and other, more potent substances such as methamphetamine, or crystal meth. Making piperazines illegal will only force their use underground, and push people to dabble in riskier drugs, said Adam Wookey, owner of Purepillz.
In fact, when Health Canada first issued a warning in July about piperazines, many retailers stopped selling the pills, said Mr. Wookey. His company, which distributes the drugs to stores and sells them online, was flooded with calls and e-mails from people who said they would revert to using alternatives like crystal meth if they could not get a supply of BZP.
"Why is it we have products like alcohol and tobacco that kill people regularly that are legal, and here we have a product that doesn't kill people ... and we're so quick to run and ban it?"
Piperazines have surprising origins. They were originally developed as de-worming medicine for livestock, though research in the 1970s found some benefits as human anti-depressants.
They came to the fore as recreational drugs in New Zealand, where an estimated 20 million have been sold legally in the past six years. For three years, they were regulated essentially as a tobacco-like product, with sales prohibited to anyone under 18, a ban on advertising, and health warnings required on packages. But then in April, amid increased concerns about the pills' safety, New Zealand effectively banned the drugs' recreational use.
The New Zealand Drug Foundation says they do not appear to be physically addictive, but describes a list of "very unpleasant" side effects.
One of the first controlled clinical trials of the drug, released earlier this year, compared BZP to alcohol and a combination of alcohol and BZP. The small-scale New Zealand study was stopped early because of concern about adverse reactions among those taking just BZP or the pills plus alcohol.
"We conclude that party pills commonly cause severe adverse reactions and have marked cardiovascular effects," the study by the Medical Institute of New Zealand concluded.
The Health Canada notice cites another New Zealand study that recorded 61 emergency-room admissions for BZP side effects at one hospital over five months. Most were mild to moderate but two patients suffered life-threatening toxicity, the regulator says. There have been two deaths recorded elsewhere in the world, though both involved a combination of BZP and other substances.
The drug was suspected of playing a role in the July death of a Toronto man at a city nightclub, as he had reportedly taken BZP before collapsing, but the 55-year-old also had a heart condition and no proof of a link to the pills has emerged.
BZP seems to have similar effects -- both desired and negative -- as ecstasy, though there is little scientific data available on the substance, said Wende Wood, a psychiatric pharmacist at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. She questioned claims they are a safer alternative to ecstasy, but also said an outright ban might not achieve much.
"When you prohibit, it does not necessarily stop use," said Ms. Wood.
Meanwhile, Health Canada says it has seen a "steady increase" in the number of shipments of large quantities of both piperazine pills and bulk powder coming into the country.
Sgt. Brent Hill, a Toronto-area RCMP officer, confirmed that police are seeing more and more of the substance. It seems to be part of the growing popularity of synthetic chemical drugs, such as Ecstasy and methamphetamines, he said.
"You've got a pill-popping generation," he said. "You look at these pills and they're clean, they have nice pictures on them, stamps, different colours. It doesn't look harmful. Ignorance is bliss."
Purepillz has a store in dowtown Toronto, where a National Post photographer bought some of the pills on Tuesday. He was advised not to take them with "real" drugs or alcohol and to avoid them if he had a heart condition. After finding out later that his customer was a journalist, the clerk added that he would not normally have sold the drug without having him first fill out the proper "documents."
Health Canada says it is accepting input on its proposal for the next 30 days, before drafting a tentative new regulation and inviting more feedback. It says it does not want to ban legitimate industrial and medicinal uses of the drugs.
By Tom Blackwell
Published: Wednesday, November 26, 2008