Hywel Tuscano was sitting at his desk last April when a teenager came through the door and asked, “Do you know that they’re selling legal E in Downtown Vancouver?”
Incredulous, Tuscano immediately went to Davie St to find out for himself. What he found was Purepillz, a line of “social tonics” — packaged pills marketed on store shelves as a safer alternative to illegal street drugs.
Purepillz, a Canadian-owned company, has been in business for only two years. Its selection of products contain the core ingredient benzylpiperazine (BZP) and 3-trifluoromethylphenylpiperazine (3-TFMPP), which mimic the effects of drugs like ecstasy and crystal meth.
BZP is banned in the US, New Zealand, Australia and several countries in Europe but it’s still legal in Canada — at least for now.
And that’s good news to Erica McCormick, who first heard about Purepillz when she was working at the Taboo sex show a few booths down from the company. Initially skeptical of the pills’ claims, her disbelief quickly vanished when she tried them.
“I thought it was great — it was awesome, exactly like ecstasy,” she says. “I’d much rather do it [Purepillz] than ecstasy and mess up my body.”
She’s even converted several of her friends into fans, she says.
McCormick thinks the Purepillz line is a great substitute for harder drugs because it provides similar effects without the potential for physical damage.
Tuscano’s feedback about the pills’ effects is more lukewarm: “The buzz was kind of the same,” he says, “but it was a little bit off.”
Purepillz owner Adam Wookey says the benefits of buying Purepillz are that they’re non-addictive and they’re a safer alternative to street drugs, where you may not know what you’re getting.
Tuscano agrees. “I consider Purepillz safer than street drugs, because you don’t know what’s in street drugs, and they’re often cut with other stuff. If people like them [Purepillz] and want to use them, then all the power to them.
“People do weirder things,” he shrugs.
Wookey says he has heard nothing but positive feedback from Purepillz users.
“They just love it,” he claims. “From the people who use it, they say, ‘I’m so glad I have something safe and consistent. I just love what you guys are doing.’”
Still, Purepillz are not without their side effects, says Dirceu Campos.
“They did definitely make me high, but
I found that they gave me more of a headache than street drugs would have,” he says.
“I introduced it to some of my other friends,” he continues. “And some of them, their headaches were worse so they of swore off them.” (Campos says he and his friends followed the dosage prescribed on the package.)
Campos tried Purepillz a few times, but they were pulled off the market before he got the chance to fully experiment with them. He says if they were sold in shops here, he would use them again.
“I don’t see why I wouldn’t try them again. I don’t know if I would purchase them every weekend, but I think they make a good harm reduction alternative.”
But Purepillz may not be around for much longer if Health Canada has anything to say about it.
Last summer, authorities yanked Purepillz products from shelves across the country after a man in Toronto died during Pride Week after consuming the Purepillz drug called PureRush. Reports never conclusively linked the death to PureRush (the man had a pre-existing heart condition).
Still, Health Canada sent out an advisory warning the public against using Purepillz products and launched a review to determine whether BZP should be placed on the list of banned substances under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
That review is still underway and no deadline for its completion has yet been set. So the pills are in legal limbo, their status uncertain but not yet illegal.
That hasn’t stopped Health Canada officials from declaring the sale of Purepillz illegal on the basis that — while BZP is not yet included in the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act — the pills themselves are covered by the Food and Drugs Act and therefore need a drug identification number, which they do not have.
“Products containing BZP are considered drugs under the Food and Drugs Act and require a drug identification number to be sold,” a Health Canada official informed Xtra West in an email after repeated requests for an interview. “Health Canada has not issued a DIN for any product containing BZP. Any product containing BZP being sold in Canada is being sold illegally as unapproved products.”
While Purepillz are no longer on shelves in Vancouver stores, they are still available online, through independent direct sellers in the city and at trade shows. The company also has plans to open its own store in the coming months on East Hastings.
Health Canada says it can take steps to prevent people from buying Purepillz, such as issuing public advisories and border import alerts, conducting inspections and even seizing products, but it can’t actually shut the company down for non-compliance with the Food and Drugs Act.
It can, however, launch a criminal investigation against the company. But officials don’t discuss investigations publicly, as a matter of policy.
Wookey believes the Purepillz line is only being labelled as drugs under the Food and Drugs Act because of a flimsy definition that defines a drug as something that is sold for use in “restoring, correcting or modifying organic functions in human beings or animals.”
“They’re claiming it’s illegal because it modifies your organic functions,” he says, “but there are many products on the market that change your organic functions, like sugar and caffeine. They’re using it as a catch-all phrase. It’s a false authority.”
Wookey and Health Canada butted heads at January’s Taboo sex show when Health Canada showed up with the Vancouver Police Department for backup and tried to confiscate Purepillz products.
Furious, Wookey stood his ground and refused to let them take anything, telling Health Canada that they needed a warrant to lawfully seize the pills.
Officials eventually left empty-handed, according to Wookey.
Health Canada acknowledges that it has tried to confiscate Purepillz products because it is concerned for the health of Canadians.
“In response to its concerns regarding risk to health, Health Canada has, in the past, seized unapproved drugs containing BZP and TFMPP at numerous retail locations across Canada,” a Health Canada official said in an email.
“Health Canada remains concerned that these products continue to be sold illegally. When Health Canada becomes aware of violative products being sold, such as drugs containing BZP and TFMPP, we take compliance and enforcement actions.”
Wookey maintains his products are safe. A 2007 risk assessment of social tonics conducted by experts in New Zealand found that consuming substances like BZP is safer than eating peanut butter, swimming, kayaking, smoking or drinking alcohol; and that the chance of BZP inflicting permanent harm is about the same as being struck by lightning.
Another study conducted by researchers in Christchurch, New Zealand points to patients having mild to moderate toxicity and symptoms like heart palpitations, insomnia and headaches.
Health Canada says the pills cause increased blood pressure, increased body temperature and paranoia.
In New Zealand, where social tonics first gained notoriety, over 24 million pills have been consumed with no documented deaths or permanent harm. So far in Canada, half a million pills have been sold with no serious adverse effects reported.
“This product has never killed anybody and has never caused significant injury,” Wookey maintains, adding that the only danger to taking the pills is taking the wrong dosage, something the company attempts to avert by providing clear directions in the stores and on the package.
Ultimately, Tuscano believes the controversy surrounding Purepillz and BZP is an opportunity for more meaningful discussions about drug use.
He says the problem lies in the lack of open discussion in our culture about drug use.
Drugs are just there but nobody talks about it, he says, unless it’s in the context of addiction.
“Our only conversations about drugs are the scariest part of them — which is addiction — when we should just be talking about the way our bodies feel,” Tuscano says.
“I just think there needs to be more dialogue about drugs and what they mean.”
Substance use is a personal choice, Tuscano continues, and as a culture we should not only be talking about the risks, but also the pleasures.
“People must learn for themselves which additions and subtractions yield the effects they’re looking for and what consequences each one carries,” he says.
“I work in a sugar and caffeine-fueled office,” he adds. “It’s no different than taking something from 10 pm to 2 am.”