Journalist | Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Not pot, but Izms legality questioned

By Alex Consiglio

The Toronto Star

February 2013

It’s been linked to psychotic episodes, suicides and seizures, but a chemical alternative to marijuana has been available in Canada for at least two years.

Izms, a herbal mixture doused with the chemical, can be purchased online or in local convenience, grocery or head shops. A free sample was easily acquired by a Star reporter at a store near King St. E. and Sherbourne St. in Toronto.

Health Canada says it is illegal and subject to Schedule II of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA).

That’s because its main ingredients, synthetic cannabinoids, are “‘similar synthetic preparations’ of cannabis.”

But Toronto criminal defence lawyers and some police aren’t so sure – and Izms owner Adam Wookey guarantees his product is legal.

The CDSA states for a chemical to be an “analogue” of an already controlled substance, it must have “a substantially similar chemical structure.” Health Canada says substances with the same pharmacological effect also qualify.

But Izms’ main ingredient, JWH-018, has a different structure than THC – the main psychoactive chemical in marijuana – and any other cannabinoid listed in Schedule II; its pharmacological effect on the body may also differ.

“Just because a substance is not listed specifically does not mean that it is not controlled, ” said Health Canada spokeswoman Sara Lauer. “Health Canada determines whether a substance that is not listed in the CDSA is captured under one of such terms.”

In 2009, JWH-018 emerged in the U.S. and poison centres received nearly 7,000 calls about it in 2011 alone. The Drug Enforcement Administration linked it to multiple suicides and psychotic episodes.

In March 2011, the DEA exercised its “emergency scheduling authority” to ban it until legislation was passed to amend the Controlled Substances Act.

Canada has not taken this step and is relying on a “vague and broad” definition to outlaw the chemical, said criminal defence lawyer Alan Young. He said Health Canada is simply assuming it’s captured under the CDSA.

“They’re kind of being lazy, ” he said. “It’d be very easy for them to make the amendments – it could be done almost overnight.”

Parliament can issue an Order in Council, which does not require debate in the House of Commons, to add JWH-018 and other chemicals from its “naphthoylindole” family to the CDSA; but with usual public consultations, that can take years.

John Huffman, who created JWH-018 in the early 1990s for research at Clemson University, told the Star it’s not for human consumption.

“It is nasty stuff, ” he said from South Carolina. “It’s dangerous.”

Huffman said it interacts with the body in a different way than THC, antagonizing the body’s cannabinoid receptors in a stronger fashion and making it capable of causing psychosis, heart attacks and seizures. “Some people it doesn’t affect, others go crazy, ” he said.

RCMP Sgt. Ken Cornell, the national co-ordinator of chemical diversion, said synthetic drugs are a new phenomenon in Canada.

“The name of the game is to circumvent current legislation, ” said Cornell. “They’re (chemicals like JWH-018) supposedly covered under similar synthetic preparations.”

Cornell said new chemicals are always coming to market that may escape current legislation.

Toronto drug squad Det. Roger Desrochers, whose unit never heard of Izms, said such products “are always a step ahead of Health Canada” and can substitute ingredients such as hundreds of other synthetic cannabinoids.

In the U.S., the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act was passed in 2012, listing JWH-018 and outlawing any “cannabimimetic agents.”

Halton Regional Police issued a news release Tuesday stating officers will be checking stores for it. Police in Windsor and Niagara Falls are also launching a campaign.

Wookey isn’t worried – this isn’t his first rodeo with Health Canada. The 28-year-old was behind PurePillz, advertised as a legal alternative to Ecstasy in the late 2000s; its main ingredient, BZP, was also not listed under the CDSA and he “legally” sold the pills for three years.

Toronto Police tentatively linked a death to PurePillz in 2008 and Health Canada issued a warning not to consume the product.

Wookey was never charged under the CDSA for dealing the pills, but he is currently on trial under the Food and Drugs Act. Health Canada added BZP to the CDSA in March 2012.

“I’d be happy to sit in court, ” said Wookey, who met a Star reporter to defend Izms. “I know what I’m doing, it’s totally lawful.”