CALGARY - Well educated, yet feeling aimless and suffering from low self-esteem, Adam decided to pursue a clandestine career that would earn him hundreds of thousands of dollars.
It would prove devastating to him and his family.
Adam was an occasional ecstasy user and one day his friend suggested that he should try making it himself.
``It sounded lucrative and exciting and at that point in my life I was lost,'' said Adam.
His Calgary operation started small, but grew larger. As the money rolled in, he invested in better equipment. With better equipment, he made more money.
Within three years, he was making hundreds of thousands of dollars making ecstasy pills and spent over $30,000 on professional lab equipment.
``As I continued producing I found that I enjoyed the challenges associated with refining my process to attain maximal yields,'' he said. ``The money and lifestyle associated with what I was doing was a big contributing factor.''
Though he hid it from his family and all but a few close friends, he thinks becoming a producer helped him grow as a person.
``Making (and using) ecstasy made me a more confident person. I suffered from a low self-esteem prior to getting involved. That is the single biggest thing I gained from doing what I was doing - confidence.''
It came crashing down on him when police busted the operation and Adam was sentenced to federal prison time for running what he calls a mid-level lab.
Adam, who agreed to be interviewed if his real name was concealed, knows the ecstasy manufacturing trade like very few others in Calgary. He now works in a downtown office and has turned his life around.
With 10 deaths in southern Alberta, and another five in British Columbia, tied to ecstasy tainted with paramethoxymethamphetamine (PMMA) he gave the Calgary Herald his unique insights into the world of ecstasy labs.
Between his experience and that of a large British Columbia lab discovered in 2008, the labs provide a first-hand glimpse into the illicit world where ecstasy is cooked.
After following four shipments of solvents to the rural address in Richmond, B.C., Sgt. Dave Williams and his fellow Mounties suspected there could well be ecstasy at the four-hectare property on the banks of the Fraser River.
But when the Mounties searched a house and barn even they were surprised by what they found in June 2008. There were two commercial pill presses, empty solvent drums, compressed gas cylinders, pales of waste, ventilation fans, a mix of commercial and household grade mixing equipment, cooking equipment and plenty of drugs.
In all, 209 kilograms of ecstasy tablets, 127 kilograms of MDMA powder without colour and 62 kilograms of powder ready for the pill press were discovered.
``By our calculations that extrapolates to about 2.7 million tablets,'' said Williams, the lead investigator who took down the superlab.
There were also restricted and prohibited weapons and four improvised explosive devices.
The environmental damage was also disturbing as the producers were pumping the waste made during the manufacturing process to a field.
``At this site, we found basically a pipe and a pump that led to the back of the property and it was a huge wastefield where they were pumping the waste out and covering it over with a Bobcat,'' said Williams.
As with most ecstasy pills, the tablets and powder did not just contain the active drug MDMA, but also filler. Drug cutting is commonplace and opens the opportunity to add other chemicals into the mix, as has been happening in Calgary and B.C. to deadly effect with the addition of PMMA.
RCMP could not determine where all the pills produced in the Richmond lab went before the bust, but say tablets with similar markings and packaging as those produced in the Richmond lab were discovered as far away as San Francisco.
Five people were arrested and charged in what Williams recalls as being the second-largest ecstasy lab discovered in the country at the time.
Only one person would do prison time. Richard Suzick was sentenced to two years and a day, while charges against the others were stayed.
The case, one of the largest ever in the country, highlights one of the pressing concerns in the current health crisis of PMMA-tainted ecstasy.
Investigators in British Columbia and Alberta are now working to find the source of the ecstasy cut with PMMA, but in previous years almost no charges have been laid on the manufacturers of the drug.
Suzick's Richmond lab was one of the few cases of ecstasy manufacturing to make it all the way to court.
B.C. RCMP's clandestine laboratory investigative and response team shut down one MDMA lab site in 2011 and two sites that had equipment and chemicals to make the drug. In 2010, it closed one site.
In Calgary, police say they have laid no charges of producing a controlled substance (ecstasy) in the last five years.
Drug unit Staff Sgt. Mike Bossley said there could be labs in the city but intelligence suggests most is made elsewhere and shipped to Calgary.
``Labs are difficult to locate'' said Bossley.
``They're a very difficult thing to come across and we really rely heavily on tips from the public to assist us with that.
``They're fairly transferable. They can be quite transient depending on the scale of the operation. If you were to produce powder and not be involved with pill pressing, you're not dealing with a large volume of equipment that's required.
``With a smaller-scale ecstasy lab, they can pop up and be taken down quite easily.''
Bossley said police do attend events where they suspect ecstasy could be used and have recently begun a public information campaign aimed at schools to warn of the dangers associated with the drug.
In recent years, the focus of the drug unit has been primarily on trafficking, especially cocaine and its derivatives, and the police force's investigations tend to centre on that drug and marijuana grow operations.
When ecstasy is found - police in Calgary seized $500,000 worth of the drug in 2010 - it is usually among other drugs dealers may have in their possession.
``(In) the vast majority of cases that the police service deal with, the drug is combined with a variety of other drugs during seizures,'' said Bossley. ``It's the drug trafficker that offers ecstasy as part of his criminal market in addition to cocaine or other drugs.''
Adam's lab was vastly different than the one in B.C.
``Producers with lab environments like the one you alluded to have no respect for themselves, the users or the environment,'' said Adam. ``They are dangerous and I'd be surprised if the `cook' finished any post-secondary education in chemistry.
``Of course, there are labs that are unhygienic and disgusting, but there are others that nearly rival professional labs.''
When he needed equipment, he did his research.
``I would order it from the Fisher Scientific catalogue and when they didn't carry the sizes that I desired I had it specially produced by a glassware provider.''
He used his university-level chemistry education to make the powder, then the pills.
If he had questions, he found a trusted online community of supporters, whom he thinks would have had advanced degrees in chemistry.
``There is a kind of thrill in making something so valuable out of nothing,'' he said.
``By efficiency I mean either it ran quicker, used fewer ingredients (or less costly ingredients) or produced a more pure product for each step of the process. I modified my original recipe with their advice on more than one occasion, resulting in a really high yield from my initial precursor and in turn reduced my costs.''
He had never heard of PMMA when he was manufacturing and wonders why it's being added.
For one, adding another drug means involving more people in the operation which raises the risk level.
Second, the finances don't make much sense.
``As a former producer I can say adding PMMA to pills is probably being done for one reason: they thought it would be good for business.
``Either they believe that a combination of PMMA and MDMA produces a better high for their clientele leading to higher sales or they thought they could increase their margins. However, the latter point doesn't make a lot of sense since the cost of making a hit of ecstasy is relatively low (for me it was between 10 to 15 cents) to produce, so what are they really looking to save?''
The other possibility he suggests is that someone thought they were buying ecstasy (MDMA) powder but were actually sold PMMA, pressed the pills and sold them to dealers.
``Hypothesizing there is a single manufacturer makes sense due to how new it is. The issue of determining if there is one producer becomes complicated since it is very easy to change the colour of the powder and the tap and dies on a pill press making it appear that there could be multiple producers.
``There are other things I would look for in terms of the pill to determine if there are multiple producers or not. Producers tend to form habits and continue doing what works.''
The added public attention brought on by the deaths, can't be good news.
``I can't imagine street level dealers, distributors or even other producers are happy about it. The situation raises public and police attention to their activity and increases the stakes in terms of what they can be charged with and the corresponding length of sentences judges will hand out if they ever get caught.''
What begins in the lab ultimately ends up on the streets.
Ecstasy, a drug that rose to its greatest prominence over a decade ago when it was tied to the rave scene, is consumed regularly in Calgary, though police say they believe the market has dropped in light of the PMMA deaths.
Adam said the users might surprise people in that they are often young professionals.
``Of course, we always hear about young teenagers doing the drug, but I'd say the largest demographic would be young adults (18-25). There are professionals who use it and married couples,'' he said.
``Most use ecstasy on Friday or Saturday night as it's likely you'll stay up pretty late and the next day is a bit of a writeoff. The reasons for using are numerous ranging from going out to have a good time, to an escape from life's pressures, to gain intimacy with one's spouse or just to get high. I'm sure if you ask each user they'd tell you some personal reason.''
Getting an accurate count on the size of the ecstasy market is tricky as users don't report their illegal activity.
The Canadian Alcohol and Drug Use Monitoring Survey, the country's largest annual survey on national drug use, which interviewed over 13,000 people above age 15 in the country for its 2010 edition, found that 0.7 per cent of respondents had taken ecstasy in the last year. The same percentage took cocaine or crack.
In Alberta, 4.7 per cent said they had tried ecstasy in their lifetime, which is second most in the country with only B.C., at six per cent, even higher.
Police say they are seeing the drug use move away from its traditional rave setting to become more commonplace.
``In the past, ecstasy was really considered to be a teenager drug,'' said Bossley, of the drug unit.
``For the most part, we saw a high number of users in their teens and early 20s, but today we're seeing the market has increased to the point where a wider variety of age groups are utilizing it regularly in environments that are away from traditional raves and into homes, bars, that kind of environment.''
While he admits it was good while it lasted, the eventual fall from Adam's arrest was profound: he hurt those closest to him.
``The arrest was an embarrassment for myself but, and more importantly to me, also the rest of my family. The effects were enormous. Passport taken away, job opportunities dried up, huge financial burden due to lawyers, stress on my relationships and the enormous task of building up trust again with those that I had disappointed.''
February 24, 2012
Stephane Massinon, Postmedia News
Dear Drugs-Forum readers: We are a small non-profit that runs one of the most read drug information & addiction help websites in the world. We serve over 4 million readers per month, and have costs like all popular websites: servers, hosting, licenses and software. To protect our independence we do not run ads. We take no government funds. We run on donations which average $25. If everyone reading this would donate $5 then this fund raiser would be done in an hour. If Drugs-Forum is useful to you, take one minute to keep it online another year by donating whatever you can today. Donations are currently not sufficient to pay our bills and keep the site up. Your help is most welcome. Thank you.