The day a mail-order high from China nearly ended Spenser Smith's life

In 2013, Spenser Smith went looking online for a new drug. The 21-year-old addict found Etizolam and ordered it from China. One sniff of the synthetic narcotic knocked him out and left him suicidal and frantic.

The drug has now appeared in the B.C. drug supply and Smith says he fears for people who are ingesting it accidentally.

The benzodiazepine-like drug is touted to provide sedation, euphoria and can reduce anxiety. It's not prescribed in North America, but it's commonly used to treat anxiety and depression in other countries.

"I want to warn people," Smith said. "I was terrified when I learned [Etizolam] is now in the [B.C.] drug supply," he said.

Smith is now 27 and lives in Nanaimo, B.C. where he's finishing a degree at Vancouver Island University. He says he started using drugs as a teenager in Regina, Sask. At the time, he says the high helped ease his anxiety and depression. 

In B.C., a recent spate of odd overdoses has alerted health officials to what's often called "benzos," being used as fillers with opiods.

U.S. overdoses involving a mix of opioids and so-called benzos have spiked tenfold since 1999. And now that same deadly mix is showing up in Vancouver street drugs.

Sarah Packwood

That scares Keith Ahamad, medical director for Vancouver Coastal Health's regional addiction program.

"People were not waking up," Ahamad said.

A few months ago in Vancouver, emergency doctors and front-line overdose prevention workers noticed people were failing to respond to drugs that counteract the effects of opioids — such as naloxone.

That's when they found traces of Etizolam and benzodiazepine-like drugs in overdose victim's systems and realized it was a new filler being added to drugs like fentanyl.

Blacked out for 24 hours

Stories like this scared Smith. He took Etizolam when he was 21 and hunting for a new high. At the time, he'd been using drugs since he was 15.

He wanted something strong and cheap.

Smith would usually buy inexpensive synthetic stimulants called bath salts or MDPV, but he said that he was tired of the psychosis that these drugs caused.

He read that Etizolam was ten times stronger than Valium. "I was excited about that," said Smith.

It was also cheap. A gram of the powder costs about $9. At that price, after the powder is converted into one-milligram capsules, the drug can then be sold for about 25 cents per capsule. 

By comparison, the cheapest legal cannabis is $7 to $13 per gram, and Etizolam is much stronger. 

Ordered drug online

So Smith used a friend's credit card and ordered 10 grams of powder from China.

A week later, the powder arrived in a blue envelope in the mail to his grandmother's Regina home, where Smith lived at the time. His relations with his parents, who also lived in Regina, were tense owing to his drug use.

After the drug arrived, Smith headed to his grandmother's garage to sniff the white powder right away, despite reading warnings that inexact doses could be dangerous.

"One sniff and I blacked out instantly," said Smith, whose memory of the next few days remains blurry. He awoke 24 hours later in an aggravated state.

He said he was frantic and searching for his drugs. He hurled furniture and tried to shower with his clothes on. He was making such a ruckus his grandmother called his parents who rushed over.

Spenser Smith

Smith says they all fought. He felt angry and ashamed at how his relapse was hurting people he loved. In a fit, he smashed a coffee cup against a basement wall, and his parents retreated upstairs.

That's when he used a Play Station power cord to try to hang himself.

His parents called 911 and paramedics took him away in an ambulance to emergency. He wound up in a psychiatric ward for a week.

The drug's effect that day in September 2013 terrified Smith so much, he stopped. He's been sober since.

'It's super dangerous'

Later, he moved to Vancouver Island and went through a series of treatments. In that time, Smith lost friends who used drugs and did not recover.

Today, we wants people to know the dangers of Etizolam. "It's super dangerous," Smith said. "I survived it, but I'm just kind of terrified that this is in the drug supply now," he said.

Smith said he's found more healthy ways to deal with his anxiety and depression, such as writing, poetry and skateboarding.

Later this year, after he graduates, he'll head to the University of British Columbia to begin a master's degree in journalism and creative writing.

The drug classroom