Better than Weed: the latest drug craze is a fake version of pot that might even be legal
Last January 19, around 10:15 p.m., a man walked into the Love Shop, an erotica store in downtown Hamilton. He approached the cashier, said he had a gun, and demanded that she hand over the store’s supply of the Izms, an imitation marijuana product. The cashier gave him several dozen candy-coloured packets, each containing 1.25 grams. By the time the cops arrived at the scene, the man had fled. His unusual demand caught the attention of a few police divisions in the GTA, who raided convenience stores and confiscated Izms supplies. On March 8, Hamilton police charged Adam Wookey, the 28-year-old Toronto man who distributes the product across Canada, with trafficking a controlled substance.
Since it hit the market 10 years ago, synthetic marijuana has become a multimillion-dollar industry and a popular pot alternative, largely because it’s so easy to find. The core market is teens and 20-somethings—a demographic that’s generally open to experimenting with drugs, especially ones they can pick up where they go for a slushie. Rihanna and Demi Moore allegedly smoke synthetic pot. It’s also the drug of choice among some U.S. college football players.
The Izms dominates the synthetic pot market in the GTA. Like the other brands, it’s a mix of herbs (a combination of marshmallow leaf and damiana, a plant that’s sometimes used to make tea) processed with synthetic cannabinoids, which mimic the effects of marijuana. It’s usually called designer weed—designer being the blanket term for all knock-off drugs created or marketed specifically to skirt the law. The word marijuana doesn’t appear on the packaging; instead, the Izms are labelled as an “herbal smoking blend.” A 1.25-gram packet sells for between $10 and $20, depending on the strength of the active ingredient. The contents resemble the shisha tobacco generally used in hookah pipes. You can roll the stuff into a joint, smoke it in a pipe, inhale it using a vaporizer or even bake it into brownies. Fans of synthetic marijuana say there’s less burnout and paranoia than you get with real pot. They like that it doesn’t show up in standard drugs tests and that they can select a low, medium or high intensity (even the lowest dose is several times stronger than most marijuana, which hard-core high seekers view as a bonus). Synthetic marijuana’s biggest selling point, though, is that it’s legal—or quasi-legal, depending on who you ask.
Before the recent crackdown, Wookey sold his product at roughly 400 locations across the country—convenience and sex stores as well as gas stations, hemp shops and adult video stores. The Izms’ name comes from a KRS-One lyric (“izms” is one of the umpteen slang words for pot). Wookey expects to personally earn up to $1 million this year.
As Canada’s most outspoken synthetic pot dealer, he spends his days trying to stay one step ahead of drug laws. He says his ultimate goal is to get his products approved and regulated by authorities, just like tobacco and booze. If he is successful (and there are many legal experts who believe he has a case), anyone over the age of 18 will be able to pick up a pack of government-sanctioned synthetic spliffs at the corner store.
Adam Wookey doesn’t look like the typical drug dealer, though between Breaking Bad’s meth-cooking science teacher and Rob Ford’s Somali-Canadian buddies, one could argue that such a stereotype no longer exists. He has puppy-dog eyes and an easy smile, and could be mistaken for Heath Ledger’s younger brother. He lives in a condo on the King West strip—a nondescript dude-lair, decorated only by various Apple products, a big flat-screen TV, a PS3 and a few bottles of good tequila that he brought back from a recent vacation in Cabo San Lucas. His roommate is his best friend from grade school. His girlfriend is a friendly beer rep who looks like she stepped off of the cover of Maxim. Wookey says he enjoys spending his money on experiences rather than possessions—and then jokes that his new $15,000 Ducati definitely qualifies as “an experience.” He is breezy and boyish until the conversation turns to Canada’s drug laws, at which point he adopts the statistic-rattling, hand-gesturing, hypothetical-question-posing demeanor of a young lawyer in a John Grisham novel. He smirkingly refers to organizations like Labatt, Molson and du Maurier as “legal drug companies.”
Adam is the grandson of Richard Wookey, the developer who began buying up property in Yorkville in the 1960s and built Hazelton Lanes, transforming a rundown neighbourhood of biker hangouts and rooming houses into a runway for trophy wives and teacup dogs. Richard’s company, Seniority Investments, is now run by his son Ian Wookey, Adam’s uncle. The family is wealthy and connected. Simon Wookey, another uncle, ran for city council in Toronto Centre-Rosedale in 2010 (he lost to Kristyn Wong-Tam). Adam’s aunt Lisa was a VP at Entertainment One Television and is married to Jacob Richler (son of Mordecai). His father, Peter, works for the family business. His mother, Karen, is a TV producer whose recent credits include Intervention Canada (and yes, she is well aware of the irony).
Wookey’s parents divorced when he was three. As a child, he split his time between his dad’s house on Hazelton Avenue and his mom’s in Hillcrest. He attended Rosedale Public School, where he was the captain of the hockey team. For Grade 7, he entered UCC, where he smoked his first joint. Later, he started selling pot to friends.
Drug dealing evolved from a side project into a profession, and by Grade 11, he was making thousands of dollars a week selling pot and cocaine. When most of his friends were filling out university applications, Wookey dropped out of high school and moved into an apartment on Queen East, in Moss Park. His roommate was a 21-year-old bartender named Jesse Gubb—they met through a mutual friend.
On Halloween night in 2002, the police arrived at Wookey and Gubb’s apartment after receiving complaints about paintballs fired at cars. Both men had fled the premises. The cops found more than 100 grams of marijuana, 42 grams of cocaine, more than $5,000 in cash, two stolen rifles and a sawed-off shotgun with the serial number burned off. Wookey (who says that some, but not all, of the contraband was his) pleaded guilty to gun possession and drug trafficking charges. Gubb was charged with possession and received a $200 fine. Wookey’s arrest came three days after his 18th birthday.
“That was always my biggest fear, that something was going to happen after he turned 18,” says Karen Wookey, a bronzed, big-haired lioness who looks more like a ’70s rock star than a private school mom. “Adam was always the kid who got caught,” she says, remembering a time in the mid-’90s when he was smoking a joint with four other kids and happened to be holding it when the cops busted them. He was the only one to get arrested. Wookey’s parents cycled through all of the usual strategies to help their son—they begged and pleaded with him, tried tough love, sought professional help. Today, Karen has nothing but respect for Adam and his choices: “Of course I look at him, with all of his passion and knowledge, and wonder why he couldn’t have gone to law school,” she says with a smile. “But I’ve always been defiant when it comes to authority, so it’s not a total surprise.”
In early 2006, while awaiting his trial date, Wookey travelled to Bangkok, booking into the Mandarin Oriental hotel. There, he met Matt Bowden, a New Zealand entrepreneur and musician who was travelling with his wife and daughter. Bowden and Wookey struck up a conversation by the pool one day and got together for dinner. Over a Thai feast, followed by cigars and tequila, Bowden told Wookey about his business selling party pills in New Zealand and his attempts to convince government officials to create a regulated market. Wookey in turn shared his personal struggles—his overall lack of purpose and the very real possibility that he was facing significant jail time.
Bowden, who is deeply religious, suggested Wookey invite God into his life; a few days later, he did just that, performing a self-baptism in the hotel pool. He says his spiritual awakening changed everything: “I felt like I wasn’t being held down by the decisions I had made in my past.” But he still had his past to answer for.
On November 1, 2006, four years after his original court appearance, Wookey was sentenced to 22 months in provincial jail. Justice Denise Bellamy (who had received 20 letters of support from upstanding family members and friends, including the lawyer Clayton Ruby) warned Wookey that this would be his last opportunity to turn things around. “In prison you will meet people addicted to cocaine because people like you sold it to them,” she said. Wookey spent his time in jail reading Hemingway, the Bible and the Dune series. He attended AA and NA meetings (he says he isn’t an addict but found the group sessions therapeutic), and participated in yoga and meditation programs. He also thought about Matt Bowden, who had described Canada as the next logical market for his party pills.
Wookey was granted parole after seven months. He called Bowden within a week.
Matt bowden today goes by Starboy, the name of his glam-rock alter ego. In the ’90s, he was entrenched in the New Zealand rave and drug scene, and became addicted to crystal meth. After two close friends died while taking drugs, he quit his meth habit and began working with a pharmacologist to find a safer alternative to amphetamines. They pored over old research and landed on the compound BZP, which had been investigated and rejected as an anti-depressant during the ’70s. Patients had reported experiencing a prolonged euphoria. Bowden first marketed his pills to addicts as a meth substitute and eventually to the all-night-partying masses. A study commissioned by the New Zealand government showed that 44 per cent of meth users who switched to BZP managed to successfully kick their more dangerous drug habit. This initial success resulted in a three-year period during which BZP was government regulated in a fashion similar to tobacco (required health warnings and maximum dosages on the packaging, a ban on advertising and no selling to minors). Annual sales of pills containing BZP hovered somewhere around $20 million. About 20 million pills were sold in New Zealand over six years. Meanwhile, after testing revealed that many of the pills on the market exceeded dosage restrictions, a burgeoning anti-BZP movement gained traction. And a change in government resulted in increased support for banning the drug. By the time Bowden met Wookey in 2006, it was obvious to him that the pill party in New Zealand was coming to an end, and he was looking for alternative markets.
Wookey founded a company called PurePillz and became Bowden’s Canadian distributor, hawking BZP at Toronto’s Everything to Do With Sex event and similar trade shows, because they generally attract a drug-friendly, over-18 crowd. Since he was still on parole and couldn’t leave the province, he handled the shows in Ontario and paid friends to distribute his wares in other parts of the country. When his parole ended, he relocated to Vancouver, intent on a fresh start in a new city. After a year in business, Wookey was moving several thousand units a month, at $20 a pop, through stores and shows as well as directly from PurePillz’ website. The police were scarcely even aware of the product’s existence until the summer of 2008, when a 55-year-old man died at the Toronto nightclub the Guvernment. Police found an empty package of Pure Rush, a PurePillz BZP product, in his pocket. An autopsy revealed that the man had also taken MDMA and had a pre-existing heart condition.
Health Canada immediately issued a warning that BZP is a health risk and declared its intent to carry out an assessment of the drug. But Wookey continued to sell the product, arguing that he wasn’t breaking the law. He spoke with the Star, the CBC, the Globe and various other media outlets, insisting that, for people who were going to use party drugs, his product was a significantly safer option than ecstasy. Detractors will point to about a dozen deaths and hundreds of emergency room visits that have resulted from mixing BZP with alcohol and other drugs. To which Wookey will shoot back that the same can be said about energy drinks, and at this point no one is talking seriously about banning Red Bull.
In early 2012, convinced that he was being followed by the RCMP and realizing that he couldn’t win the BZP battle with Health Canada, Wookey began selling a BZP-free version of PurePillz called Bliss. He won’t reveal the active ingredient in the updated product, but he says its effects are very similar to BZP and that it’s legal, which, for now, it probably is. The fundamental operating principle of the designer drug industry is to stay ahead of the curve: for every legal setback, police raid, or newly applied ban, there are hundreds of chemists working in labs all over the world, modifying chemical structures by an atom or two to circumvent drug laws.
In the past year, Wookey’s focus shifted to the Izms.
The most common active ingredient in synthetic marijuana, a compound known as JWH-018, was first engineered in 1994 by John W. Huffman, an organic chemist and a professor at South Carolina’s Clemson University. Over the course of 20 years, Huffman and his team developed approximately 450 synthetic cannabinoid compounds.
No one is sure exactly how JWH-018 and other similar cannabinoids emerged as commercial weed substitutes, only that it happened some time in the early aughties. Spice, the first known brand name, went on sale in Europe in 2004 and was widespread by 2006. Huffman has criticized the way his chemicals are used, calling synthetics unsafe and not meant for human consumption. JWH-018 has been linked to seizures, vomiting, heart palpitations and violent outbursts. The compound is 10 times stronger than typical marijuana.
While plenty of pot smokers have turned to the Izms as a legal alternative, at least as many are skeptical of anything created in a lab and would rather focus on the legalization of marijuana. Health Canada describes synthetic cannabinoids as “extremely dangerous.” In February, they issued an advisory stating that synthetic marijuana products are “rarely labelled with an accurate ingredient list and consuming them may lead to adverse health effects.”
Last year, Wookey moved back to Toronto and opened an office in the Port Lands. It’s a large room, about the size of a tennis court. During my first visit in the early spring, a couple of guys were in the middle of the room rolling synthetic marijuana into hundreds of joints—samples that Wookey and his reps hand out to convenience store owners who are interested in selling the product.
About a month after my visit, the trafficking charges against Wookey for his January 2013 arrest were stayed. No reason was given, but a stay is typically an indication that the court lacked evidence or justification to convict. Following that victory, Wookey updated his company’s Facebook page, writing, “All charges in relation to the Izms have been withdrawn. Legal weed is officially legal weed. Big surprise.” A Niagara police detective told the media that police were still treating the product as illegal. Neither party is precisely right.
Canada’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act lists prohibited substances in five schedules, each one covering a different type of narcotic. Schedule II includes THC, cannabinoids and “similar synthetic preparations,” but the active ingredient found in the Izms is not on the list. Health Canada takes the position that Wookey’s product is a synthetic preparation of marijuana. Until a court rules on it, however, the Izms fall into a legal grey area.
Alan Young, a law professor at Osgoode and an outspoken activist for the legalization of marijuana, told me that Health Canada likely believes it shouldn’t have to prove that Wookey’s product is covered by the CDSA. And if the court rules that synthetic pot isn’t covered, they’ll simply add it. He believes that, for now, Wookey has a strong, if somewhat precarious, case. “Adam is currently benefiting from the fact that the authorities in Toronto have bigger fish to fry,” he says.
Detective Dave McKenzie has led the Hamilton police’s investigation into synthetic marijuana and was responsible for Wookey’s recent arrest. He says the problem blew up in just a few months between 2012 and 2013: “I remember when I was first asking around about Izms, nobody had heard of them, and then all of a sudden everyone had.” McKenzie’s unit receives a lot of calls from parents who want to know if what they’ve found in their kids’ rooms could get them arrested. (In Hamilton, a few fired-up parents is enough to get an investigation going.)
In July, I stopped in at Shanti Baba, a head shop on Queen West, to see if I could get some. The clerk said he was going to be stocking it very shortly. “Everyone is asking for this stuff. It’s crazy,” he said before giving me one of his last sample joints.
I gathered a group of friends to share it with. We agreed to smoke and then go see the new James Franco movie, This Is the End, which seemed like a suitable agenda for a gang of 30-something stoners. I wasn’t an ideal guinea pig, since my pothead days tapered off around the O.J. Simpson verdict (I had quit because being high made me paranoid.) I figured I wasn’t going to enjoy the Izms, and I didn’t. I took four hits and the result was almost total discombobulation. Sitting in the movie theatre, I felt disproportionately grateful that it was dark and that I didn’t have to speak to anyone. I almost peed myself while laughing uncontrollably at a pre-preview commercial that featured an animated baby version of Mr. Clean. During the main attraction, I felt intermittently paranoid, confused and overstimulated. I couldn’t latch on to the plot of the movie, and had very little control over the volume of my voice. My boyfriend kept giving me “pull yourself together” glances. Or at least I think he did.
Two of my movie buddies are regular pot smokers, and both said the experience was similar to the real thing, but they’re not about to convert. To some pot fans, real marijuana’s biggest selling point is that it’s natural. When I visited another Toronto head shop, an employee tried to steer me away from synthetics. There’s no way to know what’s in the stuff, he said, or what conditions it’s produced in.
Designer weed’s legal limbo makes for a less than ideal business scenario. Following the raids earlier in the year, Wookey is back to selling at a few hundred locations. Some stores move as much as $10,000 worth of the Izms a month. Sales are particularly strong in Chinatown and Queen West, and around Church and Wellesley. (Gay Toronto has been a big market from the beginning. Sales jumped after Wookey and members of his team gave out free samples at Pride 2011.)
Wookey spends most of his days working on brand development and meeting with lawyers. His new tactic to avoid being hassled by the police is to eliminate the storefront sales and organize a team of associates who earn a profit selling the product to their contacts. The associates will bring in salespeople beneath them to sell more, making Wookey something like an Avon lady. Or a drug dealer.