Jordan: I’ve always been a little scared of taking any drugs that mess with my reality. But lately, lately, and alternate reality starts to look better and better. Assuming, however that I want to continue. To live on the right side of the law, my options here are very limited. All of your classic psychoactive drugs– acid and mushrooms, and ketamine, and I’m not hip enough to name any more of them– are illegal. They’re illegal here in Canada and basically around the world. But in some places, like right here, if you make a new one, which happens far more frequently than you would think, well, that new drug is not yet on the banned list. And that opens up all sorts of fascinating questions, which are our favourite kind of questions. And so today we will try to find those answers. And yes, I am as delighted as you hopefully are, to tell you a big story that is not about a global pandemic or a horrific mass shooting. I went back and checked, by the way, the last time this kind of story happened was March 12th, 53 days and 36 episodes ago. And telling a different story today won’t make the mass that is our world right now all better. But it will hopefully offer you a few minutes of something else, which right now can be hard to come by. We’re going to do more of these stories in the coming days, but we won’t lose our focus on how the pandemic will impact Canadian lives, wherever it happens. And we’ll make sure every episode, even this one, has a quick update from Claire so you know exactly what’s going on. So before I get to talk about tripping hard on newly invented molecules, here is Claire with what you need to know about COVID in Canada today.
Claire: As provinces across the country have started to slowly ease restrictions around COVID-19, health minister Patty Hajdu says this outbreak is far from over.
News Clip: As we know, as we suspect, I would say a large portion of Canadians haven’t been exposed to COVID-19, which means that we don’t have widespread immunity across the country, and we’ve done a really good job as Canadians, holding the line, flattening the curve, reducing that transmission rate. But the continuation of that depends on us being extremely careful with these new, I guess, permissions from public health.
Claire: And Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr Theresa Tam says, even though businesses are starting to reopen, we will still need to practice physical distancing and it will no longer be acceptable to go into work if you’re sick. Among the provinces starting to ease restrictions is Ontario, and Premier Doug Ford says the province has now hit its target of doing 16,000 tests per day, and that the province saw under 400 new cases on Monday for the first time in weeks. And lastly in Quebec, Premier Francois Legault says the province is delaying some of the planned re-openings. Retail stores and other non-essential businesses in the greater Montreal area are now set to open May 18th, that’s a week later than scheduled. And he says, this is because that is where most of the hospitalizations are happening. As of Monday evening, 60,772 cases of COVID-19 in Canada with 3,981 deaths.
Jordan: I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Jonah Brunet is a writer at The Walrus. I promise he is not tripping right now. Hi, Jonah.
Jonah: Hi Jordan.
Jordan: Why don’t you start by telling me, what is Pace? Just tell me about the drug. Never heard of it before.
Jonah: Well, Pace is essentially just water and this substance called MEAI, which is the active ingredient. And MEAI is, it’s a new drug. It was created in 2015. And it was marketed last year as an alcohol substitute and binge drinking mitigator. So essentially it’s an effort to replace alcohol with this substance that at certain doses has similar, or what some people are saying better, effects.
Jordan: And how would that actually work in practice? Like by better effects, you get drunker, not as drunk, no hangover, what?
Jonah: So this is difficult for me to imagine, cause I actually haven’t tried the substance myself. By the time I started working on this story, it was illegal. But from what I’ve heard from people who have tried it, it’s a stronger drunk. And it’s a feeling that you’re more in control. You’re not slurring your speech as much. You’re not getting like the spins. You’re not falling over. And that’s at certain doses. And then of course, there are people who have exceeded those doses, and at that point they report effects that are similar to things like ecstasy and MDMA.
Jordan: Okay, so you mentioned that it’s illegal, but at what point did it become illegal because it was for sale, right?
Jonah: Right. So it’s a little tricky. It was technically never legal for sale. The way Canadian drug laws work, and drug laws and a lot of the world, they’re essentially just lists of banned substances. So until a substance is on that list, it’s not illegal to have or to use. But in order to sell a psychoactive substance, you have to go through all sorts of licensing and applications. You have to submit kind of a laundry list of studies to prove that it’s safe and things like that. For Pace, none of that took place. So it was really never legal for sale. And now it’s since been added to the list of controlled substances. So now it’s, it’s definitely illegal.
Jordan: So how does the process for creating something like that work? Like where did MEAI come from?
Jonah: So there’s a bit of a historical precedent for MEAI. It’s in. This family of drugs called Aminoindanes, and they were first synthesized in, I think it was the seventies, as a potential treatment for Parkinson’s disease. And that didn’t pan out. And the pharmaceutical community sort of lost interest in them. Decades later, along comes Ezekiel Golan, who’s an Israeli chemist, sort of a career drug discoverer. And he becomes interested in Aminoindanes, and in MEAI specifically, for its sort of pleasant effects.
Jordan: Okay. So tell me about our career drug discover. Who is Ezekiel Golan and what’s he done?
Jonah: So Golan, he’s trained as a mathematician actually, and he has his PhD in that. He worked for a time, or it’s more accurate to say, he consulted for a number of major pharmaceutical companies. But then he kind of went his own way. And for about two decades now, he’s been creating new drugs and sort of licensing the patents to the more, or I guess the less scrupulous people who then synthesize and sell them on the black market. So Golan’s been doing this for a while now. He only recently settled in Canada. He was featured in a few BBC documentaries back in what was kind of his heyday in the EU. He had a lab in Amsterdam. So he’s sort of this infamous figure in the world of underground designer drugs.
Jordan: Okay. So you’re going to have to explain something to me, like I’m that kid who barely scraped by and science. How does a guy like that go about making a new designer drug? Like what do you do?
Jonah: So there are these computer programs, it’s called chem informatics software. It’s essentially like a 3D blueprint of a molecular structure that you have on your screen and that you can alter and make adjustments to, and then you can analyze these new structures that you’ve created. You can get some idea of what their effects might be. And then once he has a blueprint that he feels is promising, he would export that and send it to a lab elsewhere, where the actual chemists would synthesize it and sent him back samples.
Jordan: And what does he do with the samples?
Jonah: So what he does with the samples is, he takes them, he tests them on himself. He’s a little more responsible than, I’m probably making it sound, but he does test everything on himself. He’ll start from a very small dose and he’ll ramp it up carefully. So recording any effects he experiences, and of course, stopping at the first sign of anything amiss.
Jordan: What is the process? So let’s say, you know, he sends off this molecule and he gets back the substance and he starts trying it and he thinks, like with MEAI, that he’s onto something. If he’s not doing it for like pharmaceutical corporations that, you know, create new medicines, what’s the purpose behind doing this? He can’t sell it. What’s the process behind trying to make it legal or capitalize on it?
Jonah: Golan has this very libertarian mindset when it comes to drugs, he believes that, you know, free adults, consenting adults should be able to try what they want. And so that’s, I think, part of what motivates his crusade almost, is he’s excited by these substances and the ones he enjoys and he just wants to share them with people. And there is a financial incentive. He isn’t rich from doing this, and he would never get rich from doing this, but he does make money. He licenses the patents, and when his drugs take off on the black market as they have in the past, some of that money does come back to him.
Jordan: So can you tell me a little bit more, in the big picture about the sort of fight for the use of psychoactive drugs recreationally? I know there’s a movement to put them alongside, you know, alcohol and maybe now in some places, pot. What is the research that’s come out in light of that and where is that fight at? Because again, I’m watching it from way on the sidelines, but it’s fascinating to me that, you know, we’re developing new psychoactive drugs all the time, and there’s no framework really for getting them to people for recreation.
Jonah: There’s sort of two streams. One of them is a very therapeutic focus. So we’re finding that, especially for mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, there aren’t a lot of really great sort of chemical options for helping people to deal with those. We have things like SSRIs for depression, but they’re sort of spotty at best. A lot of people have had really bad experiences on them. And so we’re finding, as we look for better ways to manage those conditions, that certain drugs that were for the longest time considered like street drugs, things like ketamine and psilocybin, are actually very promising and can have a lot fewer adverse side effects than the pharmaceuticals currently available for those conditions. And then the other part is that people are just starting to realize that they’re not as dangerous. I don’t wanna make that into a blanket statement. A lot of them aren’t as dangerous as they’ve been made out to be. I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that psychoactive substances have been vilainized, since the 20th century when they were first banned. In, you know, popular media and kind of government PSAs have kind of created monsters out of what are really just chemicals that should be used responsibly, but they can be very useful and very enjoyable and don’t necessarily ruin people’s lives regularly, in the same way that they’ve been portrayed.
Jordan: So what’s in the way of this discussion moving forward then? Because if we have the research now and we’re starting to understand more about these drugs, I feel like there’s still a long way to go. I mean, we just legalized pot like not very long ago. So it feels like there’s still a long way to go, but I wonder how that conversation starts or doesn’t start? Like what needs to happen?
Jonah: Yeah, so I spoke to experts of like different stripes when I was putting the piece together. And even the more conservative ones agreed that the system we have isn’t working. So it almost just seems like there’s this legislative inertia. And all this keeping things the way they are is that they’ve been the way they are for so long. When you look at something like the legalization of cannabis, it was, what would it be, almost 50 years of not only the research, but the kind of public movement. More and more people had to do it while it was illegal, and then eventually it reached this tipping point where the government figured it was more work kind of persecuting over half the population than just letting them have it. And it was that coupled with all the research showing that it’s really not as harmful as it had been made up to be. So for that to happen on a drug by drug basis, it would be hundreds of years before everything that maybe should be legal was legal. I think what really needs to happen is a kind of top to bottom rethink of making prohibition the default way we deal with drugs.
Jordan: What do other scientists and chemists that you talked to for this story say about, you know, the process of just kind of making your own drugs and pushing them to market the way Golan does? And that, I’m going to refer to it probably nobody else has, as like the kind of cowboy mentality, you know?
Jonah: That’s a good way to put it. He’s definitely, he’s a rebel. A rebel with a cause, but definitely a rebel. Other scientists are, understandably, much more cautious than Golan. And this is something I struggled with when trying to present Golan’s work, was the fact that in many ways, he’s in the right, especially given how flawed our current system is. But he’s also going about things in a very kind of cavalier, not necessarily responsible way. And basically every sort of career scientist or university professor I spoke with was very quick to point that out and to caution me that, you know, he has a point, but he’s lacking the research to support a lot of his claims, especially about how safe his own products are. And part of this is not necessarily his fault. I know there are a lot of obstacles to him conducting that research. He doesn’t have access to the same resources as someone working at a university or someone working in big pharma would, but that’s not to say that just because he can’t do the research he should be able to start making the claims. So, definitely caution was the main point emphasized by a lot of the experts I spoke with.
Jordan: Well, that’s kind of my next question is considering that it’s really difficult for him to actually do those things, did any of those career scientists, or even anyone else you talked to, give you an idea of what a more equitable framework I guess would look like for testing, researching these things? Whether or not they’re going to become illegal, because it does seem kind of nuts that the only road this guy has is like trying new drugs on himself and anyone who will take them.
Jonah: Yeah. I think the most sort of fully formed vision for what a better drug policy would look like came from Mark Hayden, he’s the executive director of Maps Canada, and that’s the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. And his vision is essentially a government department, something like a drug commission that would be removed from the market, and also removed from kind of the day to day pendulum of conservative and liberal politics. And it would essentially manage the dissemination of drugs to those who both need and want them.
Jordan: So somebody would, somebody like Golan would come to them saying, Hey, I’ve created this molecule. Here it is. Can we get some feedback on it? Some testing of its efficacy, et cetera? And that department would handle it?
Jonah: Definitely. And in that way, you would have the government working with Golan rather than against him. Sort of harnessing his unique area of expertise instead of persecuting it.And it would lead to a lot of advances, not only in the way we manage drugs that have been around for hundreds of years, but in directing the way we discover new drugs to just better our lives.
Jordan: You talked to a lot of people for this story who are into some really interesting substances. What kind of. Ideas did they give you about what our substance consumption will look like, you know, 20, 30, 50 years down the road?
Jonah: My questions were more focused on the work Golan’s doing now, but I did get a sense that the genie’s kind of out of the bottle. There are new drugs invented on a weekly basis now. There’s no way that governments can legislate fast enough to sort out the good from the bad. In places like the UK, they’ve resorted to just banning all psychoactive substances to save them the trouble of looking into whether or not something is harmful or not. So I’m hoping that’s not the direction that things go generally, but it does seem like we’re in this sort of arms race. Unless both sides can come to some sort of agreement things will just keep escalating. We’ll get harsher and harsher drug laws and we’ll get more and more sort of untested designer chemicals.
Jordan: Well then, give me an idea before you go, what Golan is doing now that his last drug has been made successfully, I guess, illegal? Like he just moves on to something new?
Jonah: Well, so, he likes MEAI a lot. And he’s invested a lot into making it into this product, and he’s also got his eye on replacing alcohol, for various reasons, but most altruistically is the fact that alcohol is, it’s pretty harmful, even relative to like illegal drugs. So it being our only option is not ideal. And that’s something going on I was trying to remedy. He also sees it as a market opportunity. He’s trying to break up sort of a monopoly, so he’s not quite moving onto the next one. What he’s doing is he’s trying to find a way to get MEAI to people who want it, without directly contravening drug laws in a way that he could be arrested for. And when he’s arrived at, which it almost seems straight out of science fiction, it’s this fertilizer that in itself is not psychoactive, so you can’t ban it, and you spray it on otherwise ordinary leafy vegetables like lettuce, which again are not psychoactive, it would be hard to ban something like that. And then once you do, the plants themselves will start to produce MEAI. And then when someone eats them or smokes them or makes them into a tea, they’ll experience the drug’s effects. So it’s kind of this ingenious way to get around Canadian drug laws. And it’s similar to what he’s done in the past. And it’ll be interesting to see how the government kind of responds to it.
Jordan: See, that’s some mad scientist stuff right there. And I really respect that ingenuity.
Jonah: I respect it. It’s scary in a way. But it’s also amazing. He’s a brilliant person and it’s going to be interesting to see what happens to him down the road.
Jordan: Thanks so much for telling us about him, Jonah.
Jonah: Of course. Thanks for having me.
Jordan: Jonah Brunet of The Walrus. That was The Big Story. If you would like more big stories, including 53 days ago, the last one we did that was non-COVID, which was about daylight savings time, you can find them at thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can find us on Twitter and thank us for doing a different episode or get mad at us for ignoring the elephantine virus in the room, doesn’t matter to me, but we’re at @thebigstoryFPN. You can also email us anytime with just some words or a video clip or an audio clip. That address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Find us in any of your favourite podcast players. Give us a rate and give us a review. Five stars only please. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
Back to top of page