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Not so long ago, Myles Murphy popped "E" caps like they were candy. He and his two buddies would pool their money to buy 21 ecstasy pills during the week from a dealer in school or on the street. Then on the weekend, they'd steal away to someone's basement and throw "mini-raves" for themselves, glow sticks and all.

"I couldn't stop, right? It became just something I needed, I liked," said Murphy, who was introduced to the drug in Grade 9 at a party with a bunch of older kids. These days, however, the gregarious 19-year-old from Abbotsford, B.C., has a different take on the so-called "love drug" that is so popular among clubbers and partygoers and whose properties, it is commonly said, jack up the senses to the point where you can "see the music" and "hear the colours."

"It's one of the cheapest, dirtiest drugs," Murphy said. "You don't know what's in it." The warning is being echoed by police and public health officials in the wake of a spate of ecstasy-related deaths in Western Canada. Many of the deaths -- nine in Alberta and five in B.C. -- have been linked to ecstasy that has been tainted with para methoxymethamphetamine or PMMA, dubbed by some drug experts as meth's "ugly cousin."

Theories abound about what could be behind the cluster of PMMA-related deaths. It is possible, police and health officials say, that a crackdown on pre-cursor chemicals used to make methylenedioxymethamphetamine or MDMA -- which is ecstasy in its traditional or pure form -- has led drug producers to turn to other synthetic drugs, such as PMMA. It is also possible that inexperienced producers intended to add meth into the toxic blend but ended up creating PMMA by accident.

Though police have opened investigations into the deadly cases, they admit that identifying the drugs' suppliers could be a challenge because distribution typically involves many players. "There are so many different sets of hands," said Staff-Sgt. Mike Bossley of the Calgary Police Service. Bossley said it is possible that if the drugs' suppliers are caught, more severe charges, such as criminal negligence causing death, might be considered, but that would require proof they knew the drugs were lethal. Meanwhile, officials are using posters and social media to spread the message that all forms of ecstasy -- tablet, capsule, powder, with PMMA or without -- can be deadly.

Ottawa-based RCMP Cpl. Luc Chicoine, a synthetic-drug expert who provides support to the force's drug investigators, said MDMA is made by mixing MDP2P, a light oil extracted from the bark of a tree, with various chemicals common in paint thinners and drain cleaners. The solution is then mixed with hydrochloric acid to turn it into a powder, which can be consumed as a powder or pressed into tablets or wrapped in capsules. Beginning in the 1980s and 1990s, when raves became popular, ecstasy producers started experimenting and mixing in other addictive ingredients, such as meth, cocaine and ketamine, to keep customers interested.

"They'll do whatever they need to do for their customers to come back," Chicoine said. The problem, however, is lack of quality control. Most synthetic drug labs are pretty rudimentary, consisting of plastic buckets and garbage pails and other items purchased from local hardware stores and assembled in bathtubs and basements, Chicoine said.

Ecstasy users face big risks because they have no way of knowing how the drugs were made, what's in them, or how their bodies will react to them. Some can consume a lot and experience few effects, while others can consume a little and suffer very serious effects. Dr. Graham Jones, chief toxicologist for the Office of the Medical Examiner in Alberta, said taking ecstasy can elevate the blood pressure and potentially cause bleeding in the brain.

The drug lso can cause the body's temperature to rise and the muscles in the limbs to break down. Proteins from those muscles can circulate through the body and cause organ failure. The problem, Jones said, is people may take ecstasy and feel only a light buzz initially and think it's safe to take more, not realizing that their bodies are still processing what they took initially. Chicoine said he's heard of cases where a victim's core body temperature continued to rise, even after death.

The drug can make your "blood boil," he said. The recent deaths definitely will make some young people think twice about taking the drug, but some will hold on to an "it-won't-happen-to-me" attitude, Murphy said.

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