Health Canada says it's investigating whether an Ontario company called reChem, which sells and mails out so-called research chemicals, has violated the country's rules for drug control.
In an email from Health Canada, the department confirmed it had received complaints about the Kitchener company and is "actively following up" to determine if any rules have been broken under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
"Should Health Canada conclude that non-compliance has occurred, appropriate compliance and enforcement action will be taken," reads the email.
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The department sent the email in response to inquiries from CBC News after a series of stories looking into the death of Michael Thompson, a 33-year-old Nova Scotia man who died in March from an overdose of prescription drugs.
Days after his death, a package with white powder arrived in the mail with a label that said reChem.
His parents looked up the label on the powder and found it was an "equivalent to Ativan." Lorazepam is the generic name for Ativan. Thompson's father took the package to RCMP, and that triggered a drug trafficking investigation.
In an email, reChem denied selling lorazepam and says it's looking into how its name was associated with the package. Requests for interviews have been denied.
Some companies that sell research chemicals are peddling so-called designer drugs. They are versions of prohibited drugs in which molecular structures have been tweaked just enough so that they're no longer caught under the rules of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
'We need to move faster'
Amy Graves, who founded a Nova Scotia organization called Get Prescription Drugs Off The Street, said the existence of mail-order research chemicals "really shocked and surprised me."
Graves welcomes an investigation by Health Canada.
"They've just started to investigate the prescription drugs and the trafficking that are coming from doctors, and it's already morphed into something new," she said.
"I think we need to move faster and be more aggressive."
Designer drugs targeted
Taking action to control the rise in designer drugs was on the Harper government's agenda before the writ was dropped.
In June, then Health Minister Rona Ambrose announced proposed changes to update the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which is nearly 20 years old. The revisions would have targeted designer drugs which are marketed to youth.
The changes would have allowed the federal Minister of Health to "quickly" schedule new substances, which would allow them to be banned.
With the Harper government defeated, reChem is celebrating the election of a Liberal government. On its website, reChem thanked Canadians for voting in a new government, and is offering customers a discount.
"We at reChem are ecstatic! Please use coupon code SCIENCEWON for... 20% off for the rest of the month :)"
The company says it hopes the new government will champion science-based policy and said, "As researchers, we have all won. Science won. Let's engage in a new era of scientific bewilderment and knowledge!"
A drug policy expert in Vancouver said the practice of simply banning a substance — which he called the "hammer of prohibition" — could backfire.
'We push them into the dark'
"It's a bit of a game," said Donald MacPherson, the executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition.
"If we just prohibit them, then we push them into the dark and we encourage the illicit manufacturers to keep making new substances."
MacPherson says the research chemical community includes psychonauts — a term used in chat forums on research chemicals — who are interested in experimenting these substances, including their safety, on themselves.
With experimentation happening and about a hundred new designer drugs emerging every year, MacPherson says it's time for a radical approach to bring the underground chemists out from under the shadows. That way, he says, their chemicals are forced to undergo rigorous testing.
He points to New Zealand, which considered — but eventually stepped back from — introducing a new classification for designer drugs. MacPherson said that country's proposed regulatory framework would have been the right way to go for safety's sake.
"We do have to modernize the way we deal with these substances now that so many of them are emerging," he said.
Chasing a high
But mail-order research chemicals can also be a clever front for the illicit drug trade, said Michelle Arnot. She's an associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Toronto, and studies harm reduction.
"People are very inventive and they are very good at finding ways to get the effect, or to find the drug or chemical that they want to in order to either make money or to chase a high," said Arnot.
She's concerned that drugs that are sold as research chemicals and not for human consumption, such as etizolam, may be making their way onto the streets from companies such as reChem. Etizolam is similar to benzodiazepenes such as lorazepam.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has linked etizolam to date rape cases in that country.
ReChem also sells mebroqualone, a close relative to quaaludes — a sedative and hypnotic drug that was popular in the 1970s.
These psychoactives, which target the brain, are risky given their safety, purity and origin of manufacturing are unknown, said Arnot.
"At the end of the day, we just want to make sure that people that are ingesting these chemicals are put in the least amount of harm as possible," she said.
"Whether that's bringing everyone into the fold, or whether that's creating stricter guidelines.… I'm not sure."
In a recent update on the company's website, reChem says it "will be screening new customers who purchase [etizolam]." The company asks customers to provide government identification and a brief overview of their research project or laboratory.