Tainted ecstasy pills no surprise, experts say

A former lead drug investigator with the Calgary police says ecstasy has always been a dangerous drug and he's not surprised it has become even less safe.

Drug deaths linked to PMMA-tainted ecstasy prompts education campaign in Calgary

With several recent drug overdose deaths linked to PMMA-tainted ecstasy, police and health officials are stepping up efforts to educate people about the danger. (CBC)

A former lead drug investigator with the Calgary police says ecstasy has always been a dangerous drug and he's not surprised it has become even less safe.  

Eight people have now died in Alberta and five in B.C. after taking ecstasy laced with a more toxic compound.

In all of the cases it’s thought the victims believed they were taking ecstasy — methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA). But the drugs actually contained high levels of paramethoxymethamphetamine (PMMA), a notoriously toxic amphetamine that is often called "Dr. Death."  

A big part of the problem is that ecstasy is a highly manufactured substance often produced by people who rely on information from questionable sources on the internet, said Steve Walton.  

The former drug detective said PMMA might be getting mixed into ecstasy either deliberately or by mistake.

"You don’t have to infer that it’s someone who has a really thorough chemical training," he said.

RCMP Sgt. Patrick Webb said the brightly coloured pills can change hands numerous times before they are actually sold to the person who takes them. Often the person who sells the PMMA isn't aware of what is in the pills, he said.

"They simply got a pill from somebody who got a pill from somebody. The only one who really knows what is in it is the guy who made it in the first place," Webb said.

The source is suspected to be the B.C. Lower Mainland, but investigators have not yet traced it.

Police have issued a number of public warnings and have expressed frustration that people continue to take the drug with fatal results.

Public education

But Walton said the approach Calgary police are taking — a combination of enforcement and public education — is a good one.

Alberta Health Services (AHS) officials, along with police officers, are to talk to students at an elementary-junior high school in Calgary later this month, with presentations at other schools to follow. 


"Our message is these drugs kill," Dr. Mark Yarema, a poison and drug expert with AHS, said Wednesday. "And the PMMA is being sold as ecstasy, so you have absolutely no idea what you're getting."

Yarema will take part in an hour-long question-and-answer session this Friday on Twitter about the dangers of the drug.

Calgary police spokesman Kevin Brooker said police also want to step up efforts to get word out to adults about PMMA's dangers. "If you look at the deaths in Calgary, the ages have been from the late teens to the mid 40s," he said.

"While we are focusing a lot of effort and education in the schools, we still need to get out and educate the general public about the dangers of this, because we are seeing people who are older and should probably know better dying because of this stuff."

Yarema said he also wants people to know that PMMA can cause permanent brain and kidney damage.