Designer and new psychoactive drugs which can produce effects similar to cocaine, marijuana, ecstasy and other drugs have emerged as the substances posing “the greatest challenge” to Canadian border officials, and are a “significant danger to public health,” according to a Canada Border Services Agency document.
Despite a small number of seizures, the drugs are of particular concern because they comprise “the most rapidly evolving” drug smuggling market, says a briefing note sent to CBSA officers by its Intelligence Operations and Analysis Division in June 2016, obtained by Global News through an access to information request. (In 2015, “new psychoactive substances” or NPS — a category that encompasses narcotic and psychotropic drugs not included in international conventions before 1971 — comprised only seven per cent of 2,400 CBSA seizures of “other controlled drugs,” the vast majority of which were prescription drugs.)
In addition to the “designer drug” label, the substances that fall under the NPS umbrella are commonly sold as “legal highs,” “bath salts,” or “research chemicals.”
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and CBSA, new psychoactive drugs also include some plant-based substances such as kratom (a low-dose stimulant and high-dose sedative) and the hallucinogenic salvia, synthetic cannabinoids, amphetamine and methamphetamine-related phenethylamines, and the anesthetic ketamine.
In 2015, officers made 13 seizures of a highly dangerous kind of “bath salts,” alpha-PVP or “flakka,” which mimics a combination of methamphetamine and cocaine and “causes extremely violent behaviour.”
CBSA says the designer and psychoactive drugs are “particularly popular with teenagers and young adults given their primary purpose as party drugs.”
The reason the substances pose a unique challenge for border officials is their varied availability on the internet, both on open access websites and on the so-called “darknet.” CBSA said online businesses in Europe and North America that claim to specialize in “research chemicals” will often guarantee free re-shipments of the drugs “in the event of delivery failure and discrete packaging.”
CBSA also said online sellers circumvent drug legislation and minimize their own potential legal repercussions by labelling the “research chemicals” as “not for human use.”
The agency informed its agents that “seizures are likely to increase particularly in the postal/courier mode, given the rising popularity of the substances, ease of purchase on the internet and their wide availability on the European markets and in China.”
In addition to concerns about designer and psychoactive drugs as a lone problem, CBSA said their rise has contributed to the abuse of benzodiazepines, a class of psychoactive drugs that are legally used to treat conditions including panic and anxiety disorders, insomnia and seizures.
“Benzodiazepines and opioids are among the most frequently abused classes of psychoactive drugs in the world, including natural opiates such as codeine and morphine, semi-synthetic opioids like fentanyl,” reads the CBSA note. “The rise of new psychoactive substances has also led to the abuse of benzodiazepines in combination with synthetic drugs given their effect of enhancing and prolonging the high as well as to alleviate withdrawal symptoms.”
Prescription drugs accounted for the vast majority — 77 per cent — of the 2,400 CBSA seizures in 2015 under the “Other Controlled Drugs” category and 35 per cent of those were benzodiazepines. Much like designer and psychoactive drugs, prescription drugs sold on the illicit market were generally seized in postal or courier transport, where they were likely intended for recreational use or trafficking. Postal seizures in 2015 found opiates including oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine and fentanyl all likely headed for recreational use or trafficking.
In recent years, illicit fentanyl pills have grown more and more common on the black market, and have contributed to a growing number of overdose deaths in Canada, with British Columbia and Alberta hit the hardest. Fentanyl is often cited as being 50 times more potent than heroin. (It is estimated that about 2,000 Canadians died of opioid overdoses in 2015, both from legal and illicit substances: in addition to concerns about illicit use, prescription rates in Canada are a concern as the country has the second highest per-capita opioid consumption in the world.)
While the transportation of prescription drugs, including opioids, through mail traffic raises flags, entry at land and air border crossings tend to be much more benign: most individuals who arrive with prescription drugs that are seized are simply genuinely unaware of prescription requirements, according to CBSA.