The accidental drug overdose of a Nova Scotia man is shining a light on so-called "research chemicals" that are making their way into the illicit drug market.

The chemicals are marketed by companies for what they say are research purposes. However, police forces in North America are now seeing them emerge as street drugs and say they are being deceptively marketed. 

The problem, experts say, is some labs are making small changes to regulated prescription medications, creating these "research chemicals" that can be marketed with far less government oversight.

In Nova Scotia, the family of Michael Thompson, who was addicted to prescription drugs, were alarmed to find an envelope of white powder arrive in the mail just two days after his death on March 18.

The family says the envelope was from reChem Labs, a Kitchener, Ont.-based company, and contained what they thought was a drug equivalent to Ativan, which is often prescribed for anxiety. RCMP have launched an investigation, part of which generally includes sending a sample to a lab for analysis. 

Etizolam 10 times as potent as Valium

ReChem does not sell Ativan — also known as lorazepam — but it does sell a similar chemical called etizolam. The drug, which is 10 times as potent as Valium, is sold as a prescription medication in India, Italy and Japan to treat panic attacks and insomnia.

Michael Thompson helped others in his life, his father remembers.

Michael Thompson died March 18 from a prescription drug overdose. (CBC)

But it is not approved for sale in Canada or the United States. And when it's marketed as a research chemical, that's a red flag signalling deception, according a spokesman for the United States Drug Enforcement Administration.

Some companies "try to convince the user or the consumer, the person on the other end of the computer, they're legal, they're safe, they're used for research, or it might be a safe alternative to an illegal drug," Rusty Payne says.

"All they want is the sale." 

In the U.S, those addicted to lorazepam compare it to etizolam as a way to get high. Law enforcement seizures are growing; between 2012 and 2014, Payne says 145 samples tested in DEA labs contained etizolam.

And in Toronto, police last year issued a warning after two men accidentally overdosed after taking research chemicals.

'Chemical houses' able to change drug structure

ReChem has not responded to an interview request about etizolam or whether it sold the chemical to Thompson. The investigation into the sale is ongoing.

David Gardner, a professor of psychiatry and pharmacy at Dalhousie University, says etizolam is a "family member, absolutely" to benzodiazepines such as Ativan, Valium and Xanax.

Benzodiazepines can be dangerous if abused and are controlled drugs in Canada and the U.S. Gardner says when taken recreationally, benzodiazepines have a euphoric but relaxed high, and are often combined with other street drugs.

The chemical changes between etizolam and lorazepam may be small, but legally they make a huge difference.

David Gardner

David Gardner, a professor of psychiatry and pharmacy at Dalhousie University, says small changes to drugs can make a huge regulatory difference. (CBC)

"There's chemical houses that are able to change the structure in very subtle ways to get around the regulations that we have, [so] that the chemical itself is not identified as a previously viewed and regulated substance," Gardner says.

Closing down the illicit online drug trade, Gardner says, is an enormous challenge.

'We will always be chasing the chemists'

"We will always be chasing the chemists that are falling outside of the law trying to make new psychedelic chemicals," Gardner said.

On reChem's website there's a "discreet option" for shipping to researchers who would prefer the return address label say "Cerberus Solutions," instead of reChem.

The company sells etizolam in quantities as small as 20 milligrams for $20, and up to seven grams for $1,000.

Its website states it has a "strict not-for-human-consumption policy." But that's something Rusty Payne says he has seen before.

"A lot of people think they can hide behind a label, where if something bad were to happen, they can just pull out the defence of 'Hey, we put it on the label that it was just a research chemical, it wasn't for human consumption,'" he says. "But that usually doesn't fly."

ReChem recently posted a note on its website referring to possible delays shipping etizolam due to order volumes. It also states the drug is not a benzodiazepine or a derivative.