Young people are most likely to fall victim to street drugs laced with dangerous contaminants, research at the University of the Fraser Valley shows.
Darryl Plecas, RCMP University Research Chair in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, teamed up with other UFV researchers, and found the drug ecstasy is almost always laced with unexpected ingredients or more addictive drugs.
"Youth are definitely most at risk because they are the largest consumers of ecstasy," said Plecas.
Most street drugs are contaminated, but ecstasy is the worst offender, he said.
"The average tablet has nine different contaminants, but the greatest worry is that one of the most common contaminants is methamphetamine ( crystal meth )."
The drug often also contain adulterants such as OxyContin ( a prescription opiate ), the horse tranquilizer ketamine, and gamma-hydroxybutyrate, the date rape drug.
Young people who think they are just buying a "party drug" are getting more than they bargained for.
"There have been deaths all over attributed to unintentional overdoses of mislabelled or misrepresented drugs," said Plecas, pointing to the recent deaths of two teenage girls who died last week in an Edmonton hospital after taking ecstasy during a wedding party.
"The other problem is when someone shows up in hospital saying they took ecstasy, but they don't really know what they took. You can imagine the problems," he added.
Adulterants can be the consequence of lousy chemists and drugs manufactured under less than ideal circumstances by people who are trying to avoid detection.
However, nobody adds crystal meth to another drug unawares, Plecas said.
"You don't put methamphetamine in a tablet without knowing it. The end argument [for the research] is that there needs to be stiffer penalties for people who contaminate drugs."
Retired Vancouver police officer Tony Smith, a spokesman for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition ( LEAP ) in Canada, said stiffer jail sentences for producers lacing their products perpetuates drug prohibition.
The policy of prohibition has shown itself to be ineffective, said Smith.
"I fail to see how tougher sentences would change things," he said.
"This situation is created by war on drugs. We have chosen to give all control over drugs over to criminal organizations."
The legalization of drugs would allow them to be better regulated, Smith added.
"If we regulate and control the distribution as we do with pharmaceutical drugs or liquor, we avoid the situation where drugs are contaminated, or are much stronger than the buyer anticipates, often resulting in overdose and possibly death."
Society has substantially reduced the use of tobacco - a legal and lethal drug - through regulation and education, he said.
The study, titled The Problem of Adulterated Drugs, analyzed ecstasy seized by the RCMP at raves in the Lower Mainland.
Two sets of samples were collected, analyzed and compared. The first collection occurred from 2001 to 2002, and included 755 samples of ecstasy. The second set of seizures took place 2006 to 2007, and comprised 315 samples.
Both sets of samples showed the presence of crystal meth in ecstasy a minimum of 33 per cent of the time.
The most recent sample group showed the ecstasy was mixed with some other contaminant 56 per cent of the time, up from 23 per cent in 2001 to 2002.
Plecas co-wrote the paper with Sherry Mumford, a UFV criminal justice alumna and now the regional addictions manager with the Fraser Health Authority, and Amanda McCormack of the B.C. Centre for Social Responsibility.
Plecas is in England this week to present the research at the Oxford Round Table, a international forum on policy matters.