Deadly drug just 'a click away,' warns grieving Ontario family
Illegal web sales of Bromazolam in Canada difficult to stop, say authorities
Aidan Tate died by himself, but not alone.
His family was upstairs, asleep. Earlier that night, they had enjoyed a meal together. Then the 19-year-old went down to his basement bedroom to play his guitar. His father, Phil, popped in to say goodnight and bring his son something to drink.
"We had people calling us thinking he had died on the street or something. That's not how it happened," said Phil Tate. "We have our street problems here in Peterborough, for sure, but the addiction is in the suburbs."
Aidan Tate fell victim to a suspected drug overdose in early March. The tragedy is so raw and recent that toxicology results are still pending. But authorities believe they know at least part of the answer — a benzodiazepine he purchased off the Internet.
Bromazolam was never approved for medical use, anywhere in the world. Yet the powerful sedative is being sold and shipped openly in Canada. Used by dealers to enhance other street drugs, it often proves fatal when mixed with opioids, because it both depresses the respiratory system and counters the effects of antidotes like naloxone.
Phil Tate was all too aware that his son was battling a dependency on benzodiazepines — medicine he was first prescribed as a young teen to treat anxiety and panic attacks. Aidan had sought help, but was booted from an outpatient program after he admitted to buying drugs on the street.
Phil and his ex-wife, Sarah Budd, had done their best to help him as he struggled through withdrawal, relapse and experimentation with other substances.
What they couldn't protect him from was easy online access to the benzos he craved.
"It's a click away," said Tate. "Whatever you want … and you can get it sent from anywhere."
Deeper high, heightened risk
Benzodiazepine-laced opioids — or "benzodope," as they are commonly called — have washed across Canada like a wave, with users embracing both the deepened high and heightened risk.
In Ontario last year, benzodiazepines were detected in the blood samples of almost half of all overdose fatalities — helping kill 1,170 people. In B.C., where the wave began, the figure decreased from a similar 2021 peak to closer to 28 per cent — still another 643 deaths.
But no part of the country has been immune. Public Health warnings about Bromazolam and other benzos in the drug supply have been issued in New Brunswick; Sudbury, Ont.; Brandon, Man.; the Northwest Territories; across Alberta; and B.C.
In March, Peterborough, Ont., followed suit in the wake of several Bromazolam-linked deaths, including Aidan Tate's.
"The reality is the drug supply right now is shifting very fast. It's difficult for people who use drugs to know what they're getting. It's a roulette with their life," said Dr. Thomas Piggott, Peterborough's medical officer of health.
Piggott says benzos and opioids form a particularly dangerous combination.
"I couldn't tell you exactly how potent one or two or several of these pills are, but certainly as they are combined with other kinds of drugs, the risks, especially if used with fentanyl, would go up significantly," said Piggott. "It can definitely increase sedation and increase the likelihood of somebody experiencing an overdose."
The knowledge that Bromazolam and other benzos — controlled substances under the law — are now widely available online makes it all the more worrying, says Piggott.
In 2022, Peterborough, a city of just over 135,000 people, experienced 59 overdose fatalities. In the first five months of 2023, there were 31 more deaths.
"It's a crisis," said Piggott. "That's more than one per week. And we are a small region, a small community. Had this been the case 20 or 30 years ago, this would be headline news every week. And we've become numb."
Drugs shipped via Canada Post
Piggott's office told the Ontario Ministry of Health about the website where Aidan purchased the Bromazolam, which in turn shared the information with Health Canada, who passed it on to the RCMP.
A letter was sent to the host provider, and the site, Anabolicsca.net, was taken offline within a matter of days.
But CBC News was able to find dozens of other portals still selling Bromazolam via a simple Google search. The drug is available in pill or powder form for as little as $100, and shipped right to your door by Canada Post.
Some of the sites purport to be based in Canada, providing contact numbers and addresses. All appear to be fake — the phone numbers aren't in service, and the addresses match with people's homes, seemingly plucked at random.
One is a modest bungalow in Sudbury, Ont. CBC News spoke with the owner — a retired barber — who says he was completely unaware of the website and has no connection to it. (Domain registration and server data suggest that particular site, and many of the others, are actually located far offshore, in China.)
In their Frequently Asked Questions sections, the websites often make it clear it's all a ruse. Buyers are told the only way to communicate with — and pay — the company is via email.
And a heavy emphasis is placed on how the drugs will be sent domestically via XpressPost, out of the reach of snooping customs and police officers.
"Is there a risk of seizure?" one site asks rhetorically.
"Absolutely not. It's impossible," is the answer provided. "All mail shipped inside Canada does not go through customs therefore domestic mail cannot be seized."
Strictly speaking, this isn't true. In a statement, a Canada Post spokesperson noted that the corporation employs teams of postal inspectors who are "trained to detect and remove non-mailable matter from the postal system." Efforts to intercept fentanyl and other drugs were beefed up in 2019, with more inspection teams added and the deployment of screening technology at sorting sites in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal.
However, it's all looking for needles in a very large haystack. Last year, Canada Post delivered 6.6 billion parcels and letters to 17.2 million addresses across the country.
CBC News asked for interviews with representatives from Health Canada, the Canada Border Services Agency and the RCMP to learn about their efforts to control illegal online sales of benzodiazepines. All declined, instead providing statements highlighting the challenges in tackling digital and transnational crime.
"Websites selling illegal substances often appear online for short periods of time and subsequently the sites shut down or move to a different online host. Often it is not possible to determine whether the site is located (hosted) in Canada or not," wrote Health Canada.
"Transnational crime has no borders; we live in an increasingly global and interconnected world," said the RCMP.
Still, the source of the majority of synthetic drugs flooding North American markets isn't hard to pinpoint. Early on in the fentanyl crisis, Chinese chemical firms were identified as the prime global exporters of the powerful opioid, even offering small-scale overseas deliveries via the post.
China as source
Under U.S. pressure, the Chinese government banned fentanyl exports in 2019, but the companies remain deeply involved in the illicit trade. Now, they ship out precursor chemicals in great quantities to countries like Mexico, where local labs synthesize opioids and methamphetamines, which are then smuggled into the U.S. and Canada by drug cartels.
It's likely that Bromazolam, which is often cut into fentanyl, is arriving by the same route, says Louise Shelley, director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) at George Mason University's campus in Arlington, Va. But knowing where it's coming from doesn't make it any easier to stop, she notes.
"They're like nesting dolls in which there's one company inside another, inside another, so they're not all known. You need to do really sophisticated data analytics to find out who's behind it," said Shelley.
Not that it matters if the Chinese government refuses to crack down.
"You need a large political will in China to be addressing this," said Shelley. "And there is no apparent sign that the Chinese are targeting this chemical industry."
All of which is no comfort to the family of Aidan Tate.
His mother, Sarah Budd, doesn't understand why, months after her son's death, Bromazolam is still available for sale online in Canada.
"I think that the very least that can happen is that [these sites] be shut down. There should be a whole task force looking at these and stopping it," said Budd.
In the meantime, she has a warning for other families.
"The drug dealers are online. They're not just at a party, they're not just at school. Your kid can be the perfect kid, never leaves the home, and he can still be a drug addict, because he can order it [online] just like candy and it comes right to your door," she said.
"It's just the worst nightmare you could ever imagine," Budd said, choking back a sob. "I miss him every day. I'm like a broken record. I just want him back I just want him back. I want him back."
Jonathon Gatehouse can be contacted via email at email@example.com, or reached via the CBC's digitally encrypted Securedrop system at https://www.cbc.ca/securedrop/