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Ecstasy and tragedy

So-called 'happy pills' are killing people and police fear they're in Manitoba

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Police in Manitoba fear a lethal form of ecstasy has found its way into the province.

Since last July, a dozen deaths in Alberta have been connected to this so-called "happy pill" laced with PMMA (paramethoxymethamphetamine). It’s also been responsible for five deaths in British Columbia and one in Saskatchewan.

"Would it be naive to think it’s not here? Absolutely," said Sgt. Tony Atkins, who’s spent eight years as a member of the Winnipeg Police Service’s drug unit. "Our biggest suppliers of ecstasy are on the West Coast, where much of it is manufactured, and it naturally gets trafficked out this way."

A member of the RCMP’s Winnipeg drug section shares Atkins’ concerns.

"We haven’t seen any problems with PMMA in our province, yet. But that doesn’t mean we are not concerned about it," said the officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, as he continues to work covert operations.

In early February, Manitoba’s Integrated Organized Crime Task Force, a combined RCMP-Winnipeg police unit, executed Project Deplete. Thirteen people were charged with drug and drug-related offences. Of those arrested, one lived in Edmonton and some were accused of having gang ties, including with the Manitoba Hells Angels. Seized during the police operation were 9,800 ecstasy pills and a kilo of MDMA (methylenedioxyamphetamine). When asked if any of the seized drugs contained PMMA, RCMP spokeswoman Sgt. Line Karpish said, "It’s not something we can go into. But as a matter of course, the drugs are brought to the Health Canada drug analysis services in Winnipeg."

Health Canada spokesman Gary Holub said their labs do the analysis, but any release of specific results is up to the jurisdiction that submitted the lots.

Ecstasy use on a national scale appears to be on the rise.

A 2009 Statistics Canada study of police-reported drug offences in Canada found in the category of "other drugs" offences, which included crystal meth and ecstasy, there has been a spike of 168 per cent over the past decade. Recent Alberta Health figures found almost four per cent of students in grades 7 to 12 have used ecstasy.

Specific numbers on ecstasy use in Manitoba are harder to come by as they tend to be grouped with other drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, heroine and methamphetamines.

In a 2010-11 survey of drug preferences among youths in the community and in schools (including the Winnipeg School Division), the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba found marijuana and alcohol were overwhelmingly preferred to ecstasy and crystal meth.

Such mixed results are not surprising given the complex social attitudes and perceptions that surround this "club" drug.

"People using this drug aren’t portraying themselves or others using it as drug addicts. They don’t see in themselves that down-and-out image and tend to see what they’re doing as more glamorous," said Atkins. "They say, ‘I just use it casually on the weekend. I have a normal functioning life otherwise.’ "

Atkins recalled a case he investigated a couple years ago.

"There was a group of people taking it (ecstasy), but only half would take it one night and the other half would take it the next night. I asked, ‘Why?’ They said, ‘Well, we usually have to take some of them to the hospital.’ That really amazed me. But that was the mentality. They’d say, ‘My buddy just overdosed. That’s all.’ Don’t they realize they’re taking the same pill? Right there, you need to understand that you don’t know what’s in it. It could be cut with anything. You have no idea how your body is going to metabolize it. It’s like playing Russian roulette."

Ecstasy use in Winnipeg ebbs and flows, Atkins said.

"Over the years, it has come and gone. It was heavy years ago, but had disappeared for a while," he said. "It seems to be making a big resurgence again."

Criminal Intelligence Service Canada’s 2008 annual report acknowledged Canada is a primary producer of ecstasy globally. In B.C., Ontario and Quebec, police have uncovered "super-labs" that produce such synthetic drugs as MDMA. Police in Manitoba generally believe smaller and more mobile labs operate in this province.

"But it’s B.C. where most of our product comes from," Atkins said. "And while I can’t say which specific organized crime groups are largely behind this, organized crime as a whole is running it. They’re there because there is significant money to be made."

Two months ago, Winnipeg police followed up Project Deplete with a project of its own called Flatlined. It resulted in the arrests of nine Hells Angels members and associates on numerous drug and gang-related charges. While such enforcement successes may temporarily disrupt some of the street-level movement of drugs, such as ecstasy, it doesn’t end it.

In an opinion submitted in late February to the Manitoba Court of Appeal, Winnipeg organized crime Det. Wes Law stressed the Hells Angels remained the dominant outlaw motorcycle gang. The report also provided evidence of the Hells’ ongoing expansion and consolidation in the province with the addition last summer of a newly formed support group in Brandon, the Soldiers of Sin.

Law’s other projects in organized crime, including investigating Italian- and Asian-based organized crime and other outlaw biker clubs like the Rock Machine, reveal the many channels through which drugs enter the province.

Recently, Calgary police suggested dealers might be temporarily taking the lethal ecstasy off the market. Once things settled down, drug traffickers would again push the pills.

"It’s almost like you’re putting the image that the dealers care that they’re selling this bad stuff," Atkins said. "Yeah, they don’t want to kill their customers. But do they want to make money? Is that what they’re all about? Absolutely. So they’ll keep pumping out ecstasy any way they can and sell it to whomever they can. They’re not going to stop."

gdicresce@yahoo.com

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