The Ecstasy of Paul Haden
March 1, 2009
One sunny Sunday last June, the small park at the centre of Strathcona, usually filled with Frisbee players and Chinese seniors and hipster kids recovering from the previous night's partying, was transformed.
A festival-style tent went up. Folding chairs for 200 were put out for the large crowd of guests. These guests-some in suits, some in batik-print shirts or gauzy flowing skirts-covered a wide range: a doctor, a banker, a filmmaker, a writer, a lab technician, a stripper, an architect. There were so many people that a few dozen ended up having to stand.
As people took their places and a guitarist played quietly, a parks employee asked one of the guests, "Who's the famous person having the funeral?" The man he asked, Joe Brites, repeated his answer during his eulogy for his long-time friend: "He wasn't famous. But he was much loved. You would have liked him."
Paul Haden's body had been discovered the previous week in his Kitsilano apartment. The body was near the door, as though he'd been trying to get out. There was a 22-litre container of ecstasy chemicals boiled dry on his stove. Various surfaces of his Balsam Street suite were covered in a varnish from the residue. Haden was 44 and worked as a lab technician. Police said he had no criminal record and was unknown to them.
His mysterious death attracted a flurry of media coverage because it was on the West Side, because it was the first death anyone knew of caused by a drug lab, and because the 23-suite building had to be vacated while hazardous-materials crews disposed of everything in the suite and then dismantled the apartment itself. Bloggers and Internet commentators were briefly scathing about the jerk who'd caused so much trouble. And then the story disappeared.
A few speakers at the memorial service expressed sorrow and regret at the way Haden had died. Far more talked about a man who had been a unique force in their lives, rambunctious and funny and never interested in living by the rules. The kind of perpetual boy who adds glitter and charming outrageousness to the lives of the more conventional. "In some ways, time stood still for Paul," said his former UBC roommate, David Downie, a banker who works in Ontario but visited his old friend regularly.
Haden kept tarantulas as pets, and on at least one occasion lost them in an apartment he was sharing. He'd phone up to embroil friends in his latest escapade with the words "Dude, I've got a situation." The last of the die-hard carnivores, he'd arrive at relatives' houses with pounds of meat he'd insist on cooking up for a feast. Then he'd announce he was going on a diet of beer, coffee, and chicken wings.
But there was another side. He was someone people turned to for comfort and help. He would sit at a sick friend's bedside for hours. He was a hugger, and he had an exceptional ability to connect with people from wildly different walks of life. (A stripper at his memorial said she came because he'd been a regular at the bar where she worked and she liked him.) At least half a dozen people at the service called him their best friend.
But one woman hinted at something about Haden's life that others hadn't. "Paul was a philanthropist. Even the manner of his death was philanthropic," said Kelly Attridge, a biologist who had lived with Haden until a breakup two years previously. "Paul believed in what he was doing with such passion that he put his life on the line for it."
Some in the audience had no idea what she was talking about. Others knew all too well. They knew that Haden was not just another sad Vancouver story, a guy from a good family caught up in the city's battle with drugs. Instead, he was a central figure in a submerged subculture that has received little notice as the city agonizes over the ravages of street drugs in the Downtown Eastside. That subculture is made up of middle-class professionals and arts types who have turned to hallucinogens in recent years, drugs they use on special occasions, sometimes to enhance a group celebration, sometimes to enhance a voyage to their inner selves.
Using language evoking the optimism and spirituality-seeking of the 1960s, they're part of a North American renaissance that promotes the psychotherapeutic or spiritual or just plain consciousness-expanding uses of plant-based hallucinogens like psilocybin, peyote, and ayahuasca, and chemical variations of the same: LSD and MDMA, also known as ecstasy. In the growing academic literature, those drugs are called entheogens instead of psychedelics to emphasize their use as psychoactive substances that facilitate spiritual experiences. Their users and advocates see them as fundamentally different from the legal and illegal drugs wreaking havoc everywhere, which tend to promote detachment and isolation. Entheogens, they say, foster a sense of goodwill, bonding, and community, as well as inducing a positive state of self-exploration.
Haden was the underground chemist to the local chapter of that tenuously connected group, which includes simple users as well as those with an evangelical faith in the power of drugs. Some got to know him through the usual friends-of-friends channels. Others gravitated to him through an informal secret-handshake kind of network. In the last few years, many got to know Haden through shared pilgrimages to Burning Man, the legendary annual Nevada festival that creates an instant experimental city, an explosion of art and hyperkinetic celebrations of everything creatively unorthodox. This past August, his friends at Burning Man memorialized his death by taking his plastic-bagged ashes up in a plane; one emptied them into the air during a parachute jump-an act entirely befitting the spirit of both Haden and Burning Man. (It's now captured for perpetuity on YouTube.)
In Vancouver, Haden supplied free LSD to people who used it in controlled sessions under the guidance of one of the few therapists who are exploring it as a treatment method. He would take small groups to a friend's Mayne Island cottage and spend a leisurely day with them; they would take one thing or another that would send them into a quiet, contemplative orbit for several hours. And he sold or gave away those drugs to many more. At least once, he supplied a party of about 200 people from the arts world.
There were no signs that he had a massive operation or made much money from it. There were reports of cash rolled up in cans and stashed in books, but police have not confirmed them. He owned nothing more valuable than a beat-up 15-year-old car and dressed like the fashion-disabled science geek he'd always been. He was also more than just a supplier. "Paul made an extraordinary contribution to the community," said a friend I'll call Alan. "Most of the underground chemists have no moral or spiritual orientation. It's purely materialistic. But Paul was a mixture between a priest and a scientist." Another man, whom I'll call Michael, a well-known writer, said much the same. "He had this scientific side and this deeply spiritual side as well. He really thought he was making the world a better place."
Alan and Michael were two of several people who called me spontaneously as word spread that I was doing a story about Haden's death. None of them felt able to speak publicly, because of their fear of repercussions. It's not local criticism they're worried about, although they know that they'd be labelled as people who glorify or enable drug use. It's the far-reaching consequences.
"Most of us are professionals, and most of us need to go into the U.S. I personally wouldn't have a problem going public in Canada, but I have business in the States," said Alan. Even Haden's family, who had little or no idea about his other life, won't speak publicly. The case of local psychiatrist Andrew Feldmar weighs heavily on all of them. Feldmar was on his way into the States for a regular trip to see his son two years ago when a border guard Googled his name and found a reference to Feldmar having taken LSD in the 1960s. Although it was not illegal at the time, Feldmar was banned from entering the States.
In spite of their anxieties about being associated with Haden, they also seem compelled to help create a record of who he was and the impact he had. "All of us are, ‘Oh my God, we've lost an incredibly precious person.' He was known as the expert. He was known as the guide. It's a huge loss," said Alan. "We don't know another chemist who has stepped up to the plate. I don't know what we're going to do." Another man, an academic, wrote:
"I hope you can do Paul justice. He was not a criminal." It's an acknowledgment that Haden himself would have welcomed, they say, because he felt so strongly that he was bringing peace and love to the world.
Haden's interest IN that role began a long time ago. He was the baby brother in a lively family of five kids-four boys, one girl-who grew up in Kingston, Ontario. Their father, Philip, was a psychiatrist who'd fled the English class system for more egalitarian Canada in 1955. Their mother, Jessica, was the other pillar in a smart, academic, unpretentious family. They were 1960s parents, and their children were encouraged to discover their passions, not compete for conventional success. The Hadens spent their summers on an island in Northern Ontario, where the kids explored, canoed, and collected snakes-one of Paul's several lifelong interests.
Philip, especially, encouraged his children to experiment-with boundaries. Paul was most like his father: scientific, curious, a little rebellious, and inclined to think that rules were for lesser beings. When Paul and a brother tried "bomb-making" in their preteens (Paul, the chemist who detached the small detonator from a fireworks rocket; his brother, the miniature casings maker) and blew a crater in their back yard, Philip came out, surveyed the scene, and said calmly, "Okay, kids, no more bombs."
And when a teenaged Paul expressed an interest in trying mushrooms, his father was alongside him. Philip, a Freudian by training and belief who was involved with LSD research in the 1950s, supervised Paul's first experiment.
Haden's life in his 20s and 30s was marked by the same curiosity, restlessness, and lack of interest in the conventional. He moved to Vancouver in the late 1980s and did a degree in biochemistry at UBC and then a lab-tech course at BCIT. But instead of settling into steady research or lab work and a climb up the professional ladder, he moved around from job to job, occasionally out of work. At one point, he was a researcher for a drug that worked as a bowel anti-inflammatory. At another, he dove for sea cucumbers and scraped out their intestines to look for concentrations of useful enzymes. He was co-author of an academic paper titled "Loloatins A to D, Cyclic Decapeptide Antibiotics Produced in Culture by a Tropical Marine Bacterium." When he died, as a lab technician at Burnaby General Hospital, he was testing vials of body fluids. Toward the end of his life, he seemed more happy and settled, and closer to his family. He was thought to be planning to propose to his girlfriend.
No one seems to know when he started producing drugs, although it had probably been going on for well over a decade. He'd always smoked pot, as an after-work thing. And he was curious about drugs, as his father had been, interested in their effects on the brain-less a druggy guy than a science geek. He produced drugs with a partner at one point, but after the partner went to jail in 1994, he restricted his efforts to a relatively close circle. It's hard to pinpoint his activities exactly, though, because-as those at his memorial discovered-he had many groups of friends and kept them compartmentalized.
Alan said Haden didn't believe in using drugs in party situations, that their experiences were like retreats. But Michael said that Haden also supplied and participated in parties. He told one friend that it was a bad idea to do ecstasy more than a couple of times a year. Another friend said Paul was a responsible drug user, but also an enthusiast: "Hallucinogens, yes; stimulants, yes; downers, yes; you name it, yes."
And still others knew nothing about any of it and were simply baffled by the way he died. "I stand here with a broken heart because there is no farewell this visit, only goodbye," said David Downie, the college roommate. Haden's boss at Burnaby General, Nancy Cunningham, said his death shocked everyone there; they had had no suspicions about his other life. "He was the greatest guy to work with. He was never late and he was really accurate," said Cunningham. "He'd only been here a year, but everybody liked him."
Despite Haden's spiritual goals, he created chaos in his last act. The Friday night he died, four people in his building reported smelling something strange, feeling nauseous, and vomiting. The whole place had to be evacuated. The owner had to spend $140,000 stripping his apartment to the studs to reduce-down to 0.1 microgram per 100 square centimetres, as per the city's environmental health bylaws-the chemicals found in his apartment: palladium chloride, palladium bromide, phosphoryl chloride, acetone, hydrochloric acid, and the ecstasy precursor chemical MDP2P.
For police and fire services, the incident was a frightening example of the dark side of drug labs: they're easy to set up and they're portable, meaning that in a condo city like Vancouver they can be anywhere, potentially putting hundreds of lives at risk. Paul Haden's family ended up with none of his belongings, not even the hard drive of his computer, which held 20 years' worth of photos.
And he left behind a community of people who couldn't fathom why he was cooking chemicals in his apartment in such an unsafe way. Some of them mourned that he paid for the consequences of prohibition with his life but are not uncritical of what he did in the end-and they say he would have been the one most horrified by what he unleashed. "There was something grossly weird about what he was doing," said Alan. "There was an out-of-character shoddiness, and it harmed a lot of people." His friends are blaming not just him, says Michael; they also blame themselves. "There's some part of us that feels complicit in his death. We were the demand for that product. We were part of the machine that consumed."
What exactly took Haden's life? Ironically, not the noxious fumes of the drug he was purifying. There weren't enough toxins in the apartment to have killed him. The coroner has told the family that he died of a heart arrhythmia, and had been dead for at least a day before he was found.