In the spring of 2018, a new recreational drug briefly appeared on the Canadian market. It looked like white wine, came in fifty-millilitre bottles, and sold for roughly $10 apiece from a nondescript website. According to its inventor, Ezekiel Golan, the drug, called Pace, is a panacea for our postmodern, late-capitalist lives, capable of curbing excess in everything from food to shopping to sex. Through his company, Golan marketed Pace as an alcohol-binge-drinking mitigator.
Within nine months, it was shipped to some 1,000 customers across the country. One of these early adopters, posting a review to Pace’s website, described it as tasting “like dirty puddle water from a busy gas station” and characterized its effects as being “like a STRONG drunk except without the slurring of speech, or most of the imbalance issues, and absolutely zero hangover.” Five stars.
Listen to an audio version of this story
For more audio from The Walrus, subscribe to AMI-audio podcasts on iTunes.
Exactly how Pace affects the brain is contested and something of a mystery. Golan’s theory is that the drug’s active ingredient, MEAI (or 5-methoxy-2-aminoindane), works by binding to the brain’s 5-HT1A receptors and saturating the serotonin system, a process that can help mitigate cravings: roughly speaking, the more serotonin available to a person’s brain, the less they tend to desire things like alcohol and cigarettes. “It’s the ‘enough’ switch,” Golan says of MEAI. “[Serotonin] signals to the brain that it is satisfied, that it wants nothing.” And, at least anecdotally, Pace seems to work: over one-third of its online reviewers confirmed (and none denied) that, when they took the drug, they felt like drinking less.
Pace’s short run on the market ended in December 2018, when a CBC reporter wrote a story about Golan’s new alcohol alternative. She sent a media request to Health Canada, tipping the regulator off. “It Never Killed Anybody,” Golan insists in the ensuing CBC headline, evoking a desperate inventor shielding his creation from an angry mob. The article paints a similarly dramatic picture of Golan’s past: a “controversial 15-year career in the shadowy world of cutting-edge psychoactive drugs.” Within weeks, Health Canada declared MEAI a Schedule I controlled substance—on par with cocaine and heroin—and effectively ordered Golan to stop selling it. Though Golan complied, he was just getting started. To him, Pace is more than a product: it is part of an ongoing quest to revolutionize the way we think about recreational drugs.
A growing number of scientists and experts around the world believe that psychoactive substances, most of which have been illegal for the past century, have been unjustly villainized. In fact, as Golan is happy to point out, these substances can be beneficial in ways we’ve overlooked: recent studies and accumulated anecdotal evidence have pointed to the untapped potential of psilocybin (the active compound in magic mushrooms), ketamine, LSD, and MDMA to help treat schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
Meanwhile, research has found that the psychoactive substances often granted legal status, such as alcohol, are among the most damaging. This conversation was galvanized in 2009, when David Nutt, then chairman of the UK’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, was fired after stating that alcohol and tobacco are more harmful than cannabis, ecstasy, and LSD. In the wake of Nutt’s dismissal, he and a team of researchers who disagreed with the advisory council developed a scale to compare twenty popular psychoactive substances according to two overarching categories: a drug’s harm to users (whether physical, psychological, or social) and its harm to everyone else (from drug-fuelled violence to emergency-room crowding). To Nutt’s surprise, alcohol ranked top of the list—above meth, crack, and heroin. (Nutt later partnered with Golan on a Pace prototype called Chaperon.)
Ever since the early twentieth century, when the majority of psychoactive substances were first banned, conversations about drugs have been among the least rational areas of public discourse. Today, as new technologies and scientific research reveal deeper insights about these substances, it’s becoming increasingly clear that our relationship with them is profoundly flawed. In much of the world, for decades, alcohol has been the only legal option for those seeking a substance to help them blow off steam—and this has amounted to the greatest promotional campaign any drug has ever enjoyed, creating a powerful industry and giving its product a cultural significance that belies its harms. To Golan and his contemporaries, it seems, it’s high time we came up with something better.
Ezekiel Golan was born in 1970 in Tel Aviv, Israel. From a young age, he was told that drugs were to be avoided and feared. For a while, this stuck: he describes himself as having been a “traditionalist teetotaller” late into his twenties. Then he was invited by an uncle to observe the Yemeni-Jewish tradition of chewing khat leaves, which contain cathinone, a stimulant popular in East Africa and the Arabian peninsula. This gathering of devout, serious men getting high to discuss scripture changed the way Golan thought about psychoactive substances and those who enjoy them.
At Australia’s University of Queensland, Golan studied computer science and mathematics. Today, he characterizes his work as more math than chemistry. He starts from a database of psychoactive chemicals, selecting and tinkering with molecules using personalized cheminformatics software (programs that allow him to visualize, adjust, and analyze molecular structures), then sends digital blueprints of his most promising creations to a lab elsewhere for chemists to synthesize. Cathinone, for instance, tweaked according to this method, yielded mephedrone—the substance that, between 2009 and 2011, became one of the most popular party drugs in the UK. As one of the people who promoted mephedrone, Golan, under the pseudonym Dr. Zee, ascended to fame, with profiles in the Guardian, the BBC, New Scientist, and more.
In 2014, with his partner and three children, Golan relocated to Canada. He set up shop in Vancouver, seeking to establish himself as a drug entrepreneur. In Canada, no law prohibits Golan from creating or possessing his inventions, nor is it illegal for him or anyone else to consume them—that is, unless the drug is added to the federal list of banned substances, which is what Health Canada did to MEAI. But legally selling a new drug is where obstacles arise. One must first navigate an approval process that costs roughly half a million dollars in licensing and application fees per unlikely attempt. This makes legal drug discovery prohibitively expensive for all but large pharmaceutical companies, whose interest in new drugs is limited to the medicinal (and profitable). Consequently, the pathway to approval for a new recreational drug is largely uncharted—though that doesn’t mean there isn’t anybody out there inventing them.
In the clandestine world of designer drugs, Golan is an anomaly less for his work than for the openness and idealism with which he does it. He speaks of his profession in a language that combines the startup’s big promises, the philosopher’s love of theory, and the scientist’s detached intellectualization. (He frames the shaky legality of his enterprise as a conflict between “a body of law, which is a human construct—a purely human construct—and a body of biochemistry, which is natural.”) He seems genuine in his belief that his drugs have the potential to help people; what he’s missing are the frameworks, the resources, and the oversight to develop them responsibly.
According to studies and experts in the field, Golan’s claims about MEAI should be taken with several grains of salt. The drug has gone through three preclinical toxicology tests, and in only one of these tests was Golan himself not involved. Though these studies suggest that MEAI’s risk is low and offer some clues about its effects on the brain, each concludes with some variation of “further research required.”
How quickly Pace was made available to the public also presents ethical issues. While beta testing may be well and good for tech, disruption in the realm of drug discovery risks undermining the regulatory safeguards that protect public health. (Not that these safeguards are themselves ideal—even former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, who once advocated for stricter drug regulation around the world, has since admitted that “drugs have destroyed many people, but wrong policies have destroyed many more.”) Harmful policies notwithstanding, drugs retain their dangers, and the advent of entirely new substances compounds this fact: as we’ve seen with e-cigarettes, the capacity of a new kind of recreational drug to cause injury and death, particularly over the long term, can remain unknown even as its popularity explodes.
Much of what Golan knows about MEAI is what he’s experienced personally. His regimen of self-experimentation is methodical: he begins with an imperceptible dose of a drug and ramps it up carefully, recording any effects as he feels them and stopping at the earliest sign of an adverse reaction. On testing MEAI, he says what he found most remarkable was the hangover-free mornings. “They were quite delightful.”
The idea behind this controversial method is that one cannot truly know the effects of a mind-altering substance without experiencing them first-hand. But, for Golan, there’s also an element of necessity. Lacking the resources and institutional support available to researchers in the mainstream, he finds himself in a similar predicament to that of his users, who must rely on anecdotal research and shared personal experiences when attempting to discern purity and measure safe doses.
As Golan comes increasingly into the public eye, he is confronted more and more with his work’s potential to cause harm. In 2010, the UK’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs compiled a list of twelve deaths in which mephedrone was implicated. (An independent review the following year found that the drug was primarily responsible for only two of those deaths.) And, in 2013, Golan was featured in a TV documentary on “legal highs” that followed a young British man who used drugs like Golan’s on a regular basis. Three years later, a BBC journalist asked Golan if he felt guilty when people became addicted to his drugs. Golan paused, looked around, sighed, screwed up his face. “This is a really hard one for me,” he said, “because the answer is no. I don’t feel guilty at all. I’ve never met anybody addicted to my drugs.”
When asked the same question by New Scientist, he responded, “I am greatly saddened by anything I’ve done that has contributed to harming another person. . . . That’s why I take pains not to be reckless in my discovery process.”
Today, Golan seems sick of the question. “Did you want me to convey compassion?” he says. “Because I can. But I’m not going to be apologetic. The war on drugs has been extremely harmful, and legislators are not held accountable. Not acting, or siding with prohibition, is more harmful than being experimental.”
Through his lawyer, Golan is currently appealing Health Canada’s decision to prohibit Pace. Regulators were able to ban MEAI by lumping it together with already-illegal amphetamine PMA, declaring that the two substances were “substantially similar” after comparing side-by-side images of each molecule in bond-line notation—a shorthand language chemists use to communicate in molecular structures. Memorial University of Newfoundland chemistry professor Erika Merschrod calls bond-line notation “a limited way of thinking about what a molecule is going to do.” Assessing a substance by this measure alone is like trying to determine whether a building is structurally sound by reading a paragraph describing it. Golan’s argument is that, in ignoring the gap between reality and two-dimensional transcription, Health Canada has misunderstood his molecule.
Nevertheless, Merschrod stresses that Golan lacks the research necessary to substantiate his salesman claims about MEAI’s effects. She also notes that, despite the limitations of Health Canada’s analysis, the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act’s condition of “substantially similar chemical structure”—a flexible criterion—can certainly be argued as applicable in the case of MEAI and PMA. “As a chemist, I agree with the science of Golan’s points,” she says. “But I don’t think he has a chance. To me, it’s clear that MEAI is prohibited under the law. Whether you think those laws are correct is another question.”
According to a growing body of research, they are not: banning psychoactive substances causes all kinds of collateral damage, from violent crime to increased street-drug potency, besides which it isn’t a surefire way to deter their use. But perhaps the most clearly misguided aspect of contemporary drug laws is their choice of exceptions. People have been suffering the nausea and headaches—not to mention the cancers—attendant to our drugs of choice for generations. In Canada, alcohol was responsible for 80,000 hospitalizations from 2016 to 2017, more than were caused by heart attacks, and over 3,000 deaths in 2015, more than were caused by car accidents (though, given alcohol’s tendency to cause car accidents, those two statistics overlap). “It isn’t difficult to create something less harmful than alcohol,” Golan says. “It’s an open market that hasn’t been exploited, due to overconservatism.”
In this sense, Golan may be fighting the good fight. Yet his prospects seem grim when measured against the sheer inertia of prohibition. Typically, when drug science goes up against drug law, the law wins.
And so, as his legal appeal drags on, Golan is hedging his bets. His latest innovation is a nonpsychoactive liquid fertilizer that, when sprayed on certain leafy vegetables, causes the plants themselves to produce MEAI. These greens can then be eaten in a salad, blended into a smoothie, steeped as tea, or smoked to experience the drug’s effects. It’s tempting, in light of Golan’s past, to view this latest breakthrough as just another scheme to circumvent prohibition, this time by laundering his drugs through nature itself. But he insists that the process, which he calls human-assisted phytosynthesis, is about profoundly more. “It’s bridging the gap between the natural and the synthetic,” he says. “Nature had a hand in this creation.”