Rare synthetic drug seized after 6 Prince Albert overdoses

Rare synthetic drug seized after 6 Prince Albert overdoses

On the street, it's known as Nexus, Bees or Venus.

To police and health officials, it's known as "2C-B." It's a potent — and illegal — psychedelic that police say is behind six drug overdoses in Prince Albert, Sask., on Feb. 20.

A Prince Albert man is charged with criminal negligence causing bodily harm, trafficking 2C-B and possessing the proceeds of crime.

The six people were taken to hospital from the same location, all showing the same overdose symptoms. Police say they seized unknown substances at the location, but that there was nothing to suggest the drug was being made in Prince Albert.

The synthetic drug, which was first developed as a therapeutic substance, is little seen in Saskatchewan. It only became illegal in recent decades after beginning to be abused as a recreational hallucinogen.

Hidden history

Police in Prince Albert say last week's overdoses are the first time they've encountered 2C-B. Police in Saskatoon and Regina say they've never seen it.

"It's probably been in the province multiple times, but that's the first time it's hit the news. This stuff doesn't happen in isolation, in one place, one time," said Rand Teed, an addictions counsellor who has worked in Saskatchewan for the past 40 years.

"I'm sure there's multiple people that have used that drug and just not had a bad enough experience that they either ended up in the hospital or the police were called."

The effects of 2C-B are described in Health Canada literature as similar to ecstasy and LSD.

Ecstasy was popular in the rave scene and, when it became illegal in the U.S. in 1985, drug suppliers substituted 2C-B. It did not became illegal in the States until 1995.

So, it's possible that people in Saskatchewan who thought they were using ecstasy were, in fact, using 2C-B.

The synthetic conundrum

2C-B was first synthesized by California chemist Alexander Shulgin in 1974. According to the drug website Erowid, "It first saw use among the psychiatric community as an aid during therapy."

But what started as a therapeutic tool turned into a party drug, and a way around drug laws.

It's not the first time this has happened.

"When morphine was declared a controlled substance, people began to try to chemically synthesize similar compounds. That's how OxyContin, oxycodone was developed," said Teed.

"So this process has been going on for a long time, basically to get past legal restrictions to psychoactives."

Health Canada tracking of drugs 'a work in progress'

Any drugs seized by police in Canada are sent for identification and certification to the Drug Analysis Service laboratories for Health Canada.

Its director, Benoit Archambault, said that, annually, the labs handle about 120,000 samples. Of that total, he said 85 per cent are cannabis, cocaine and methamphetamine. The remaining 15 per cent is where scientists encounter designer drugs.

Archambault said 'street' scientists will tweak the molecular structure of a drug to maintain its effect on users, but change its composition enough to keep it legal.

Government scientists combat this strategy by targeting entire families of drugs. He said that 2C-B is a good example: There are a few drugs within the "2C family."

"We see there's an increase in the popularity of these substances and we wanted to cover everything, so Health Canada decided to control those substances as well," he said. "The goal is to control all the family."​