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An ecstasy pill is pictured at the RCMP headquarters in Surrey, B.C. Wednesday, June 6, 2012.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Party drugs appear to be getting more deadly and readily available, experts are warning after a rash of overdoses and deaths at music festivals this summer.

These drugs – which often mix ecstasy with substances as hazardous as arsenic and bath salts – are sometimes ingested by partygoers who have no idea what they contain or how to manage their effects. And the lethal compounds seem to be turning up more frequently.

"I think it's true that party drugs are becoming more dangerous. There are generally more drugs out there," said David Juurlink, head of the division of clinical pharmacology and toxicology at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto.

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"These drugs aren't made under conditions of strict quality control. Sometimes deaths result from people taking what they think is drug A, but it is instead drug B."

Two people died and 13 more were hospitalized after taking drugs at the Veld Music Festival in Toronto on Aug. 2 and 3. That same weekend, a woman died and more than a dozen others fell ill after they were believed to have taken drugs at Boonstock Music Festival in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley. Then, on Friday, six people were treated for overdoses at Calgary's Chasing Summer Festival.

Detective-Sergeant Peter Trimble, who is investigating the deaths at Veld, said this week police have recovered two different drugs and are currently testing them. He did not respond to a request for comment Sunday.

So far, it is unclear whether there is any connection between the overdoses in three provinces this summer.

"I don't think it's the same people, but it's the same problem," said John Haines, president of Addiction Canada. Mr. Haines said his organization, which runs several treatment centres, has in recent years noticed an increase in the number of people seeking help kicking party drugs.

And the ecstasy itself is cut with ever more dangerous additives than before. Where once it might have been mixed with ephedrine, it is now cut with a wide range of substances, from cocaine to rat poison, in a bid to offer a bigger high, he said.

"It was never, ever, ever, like what they're doing now," just a few years ago, Mr. Haines said.

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The trouble with such mixtures is that people often take them without knowing what is inside them. Some Veld partygoers, for instance, told police this week they were even popping pills they had picked up off the ground.

Mr. Haines says the solution is a mix of education – making sure partiers know what risks they are taking by ingesting mystery pills – and better enforcement. Security at such events should be proactively hunting down drug peddlers selling their stuff, he said.

New Zealand, meanwhile, has taken a revolutionary approach to the problem. The island nation last year passed a law that regulates the legal use of party drugs, allowing people to manufacture and sell them, provided the product passes a series of trials demonstrating it is safe.

Mr. Juurlink says he understands the logic behind such a policy: Some risk-taking people will always try to experiment with drugs, so perhaps the best the government can do is regulate the substances to weed out the most harmful ones.

Ecstasy on its own is generally not considered life-threatening, but when cut with dangerous additives, cooked by unscrupulous dealers and ingested by dehydrated youth, it can quickly become lethal.

"All it takes is someone who doesn't know what they're doing," Mr. Juurlink said. "Even with the best medical care, patients still die."

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