It all began with a death after a house-party and evolved into what was Calgary's worst drug-overdose crisis. According to Metro.com, a 16-year-old was one of the first PMMA poisonings, as he was rushed to the hospital in critical condition after ingesting ecstasy. Dr. Mark Yarema, an emergency room physician and medical director for the Poison and Drug Information Service said, "We get the occasional ecstasy call, but nothing like this. There were eight others who had come from the same party, all with symptoms."
The 16-year-old died a few days later. In the following months, 14 deaths occurred in Alberta and at least 5 in British Columbia would be linked to PMMA, which was contained in the ecstasy they had taken.
PMMA is an amphetamine-like substance, that has recently been combined with ecstasy, and has caused numerous deaths in Canada, as well as Norway, the Netherlands, and Iceland. The synthesis of PMMA was described by chemist Alexander Shulgin in his book PiHKAL, which is often considered to be a "bible" among ecstasy chemists. Shulgin reports that PMMA produces an increase in blood pressure and heart rate at doses above 100mg, but causes no psychoactive effects at these low doses. The structure of PMMA is very simulate to PMA, which is known to be toxic in humans.
After the first string of deaths in Calgary, fear for public safety began a swift campaign to not only find those responsible, but also to warn the public of this potentially deadly ecstasy that appeared to be circulating areas of Canada. Furthermore, new hospital policies were drafted in dealing with these overdoses.
Although the first death occurred in December of 2011, quite a few more followed in January and February of 2012. Another recent hospitalization has occurred as a result of PMMA tainted ecstasy. Some authorities believe that people may still be holding onto some of this supply of tainted ecstasy.
Calgary police staff Sgt. Mike Bossley describes one of the most hectic three months of his career, following the first PMMA deaths. He said, "not only are you trying to run this massive investigation, but you also have to get word out to the public." Police learned that a select group of dealers were responsible for the tainted ecstasy, and the police moved in to make a few key busts in attempts to stop the ecstasy from hitting the streets with a vengeance.
The media also launched a campaign to educate the public about this potentially fatal ecstasy. They developed a series of anti-drug posters, and even a Twitter campaign advertising users to stay away from ecstasy. Calgary police spokesperson Kevin Brookwell said, "We were doing everything we could to educate the public. It seemed like every weekend people were dying from overdoses."
The policed fear that this PMMA-tainted ecstasy could resurface on the market at any time, and they believe that both dealers and users could still be holding onto the deadly substance. Recently, there was an instance of a young man who took a hit of ecstasy he had been holding onto for several months, and when he began to experience some disturbing symptoms, he told his parents to take him to the hospital because he knew something was terribly wrong. The young man collapsed when he arrived at the hospital, but his life was spared. He credits the media campaigns for his life, as he would not have rushed to the hospital if he had not heard all the warnings of this PMMA-tainted ecstasy.
Bossley said, "It's not over. We haven't stopped our investigation…I think we are better prepared now to deal with something like this both from a policing perspective and with the public."
Photo Illustration by Candace Ward and Katie Turner.