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July 24, 2012 - 10:59am

From China White to bath salts, designer drugs ongoing public safety challenge

posted by Howard B. Owens in synthetic drugs, bath salts.

In early 2011, a 17-year-old boy entered a head shop in Salina, Kan., and purchased a package of chemically laced potpourri.

The teen went home, smoked what he apparently believed was synthetic marijuana and suffered a seizure. He was taken to a local hospital where he slipped into a coma.

While the boy survived the experience, the case and related events illustrate a few points about synthetic drugs.

  • The chemists who make them are always trying to stay one step ahead of controlled substance bans.
  • The chemists who make them demonstrate little concern about the safety of the products they produce.
  • Even when a substance used in the manufacture of a synthetic drug isn't specifically banned at either a state or federal level, there are laws on the books to help authorities go after the producers and sellers of these compounds.

The 42-year-old shop owner, Eric Srack (in photos above), was eventually arrested. He was convicted in September 2011 of selling a substance that was an analog to (mimics the effects of) a controlled substance. Later, he entered a guilty plea to a related felony charge for possession with intent to sell an analog to a controlled substance.

According to The Hutchinson News, Srack was suspected in February of 2011 of manufacturing blends of potpourri known as "Bubble Gum Fun" and "Midnight Moon."

According to the story, Srack bragged on his Web site:

I am the only man alive with my recipe. Although all of my blends are lightly fragranced, they remain 99 percent all natural and completely herbal.

When authories raided warehouses belonging to Srack, they reportedly found substances containing the chemicals JWH-122 and JWH-210. Authorities charged that the substances were analogs to JWH-018 and JWH-073, which were already banned in Kansas.

The substances JWH-018 and JWH-073 were used in the manufacture of Spice and K2, the most commonly recognized names for synthetic marijuana.

It appears that Srack created his own potpourri with the intention of skirting both federal and Kansas controlled substances laws.

Srack's amateur cannabinoids modification demonstrates how easily somebody with a limited background in chemistry can get into the synthetic drug trade, and how few safety precautions clandestine chemists take before releasing a new substance to consumers.

In the past year, Genesee County has seen a couple of waves of synthetic drug use, first with synthetic cannabinoids and more recently with chemical compounds known as bath salts.

The spike in bath salt use over the past several weeks has led to reports of seizures, extreme body temperatures, odd and even dangerous behavior and people with numerous paranoid delusions.

Eventually, the bath salt craze will fade, but the more than 50-year history of synthetic drugs, often called designer drugs, shows that when one so-called "legal high" is banned, users will seek out a new fix and, increasingly, there are underground chemists willing to try and supply it to them.

The invention and manufacture of synthetic compounds that have mind-altering effects goes back to the early part of the 20th Century. But wasn't until 1979 that authorities first encountered a dangerous drug that didn't show up in urine and blood samples and was designed to mimic a substance that was already illegal to sell and manufacture.

The drug was China White, a synthetic form of heroin created by an anonymous chemist in California.

China White was a knockoff of fentanyl, a powerful painkiller used in clinical settings, usually as an anesthetic in major surgery.

The new drug was 20 to 40 times more powerful than heroin and a druggist with $500 in chemicals could produce product worth $2 million on the street, according to a 1985 article by Jack Scafer in Science magazine. (Read the end of the article for an interesting discussion of the connection between another "new" heroin product and how it helped scientists find a possible connection between environmental pollution and Parkinson's Disease.)

Dozens and dozens of people died as a result using China White in the years immediately after its introduction.

After China White came PCP, GHB, Ecstasy, Special K and Nexus, among others, before the introduction around 2005 of Spice, K2 and the first form of "bath salts."

The ever-changing non-organic drug market is likely continue to befuddle law enforcement and health professionals until the cops and prosecutors catch up with the 21st Century, according to Bruce Talbot. He retired from the Woodridge, Illinois PD after a 26-year career and is a drug-recognition expert who has studied synthetic drugs extensively since the 1980s.

"Our current drug laws are based on the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 when our drugs were based on plants," Talbot said. "It was meant to regulate opium, heroin and cocaine. But that's the 20th Century. Our laws need to catch up with the 21st Century."

In response to the rise of previously unknown drugs that mimic already banned substances, in 1985 Congress passed the Federal Analog Act, which made it a crime to sell and distribute compounds and substances intended to produce the same effect as drugs already declared illegal.

The act requires a two-prong test for prosecution:

  • That the substance has components and effects similar to a Schedule I or Schedule II controlled substance;
  • And, that the producer intended it to have an intoxicating effect.

That's why products that are sold as "bath salts," "incense," potpourri," "spice" and "plant food" contain the warning, "not for human consumption."

Invariably, that's the only notice on the colorfully decorated packages with fanciful names indicating that the contents might be harmful if consumed.

The warning seems to exist purely as a legal fiction designed -- producers hope -- to protect manufacturers and sellers from possible criminal consequences.

The naming and marketing of the packages often seem intended to attract buyers other than those looking to make their water smell sweet or attract ladybugs to their gardens.

Sample products available online: Mind Candy (sold as a "plant food"), Pink Panther (sold as a "research chemical" out of the UK), Day Lights (which carries the warning "Keep out of Reach of Children. Not for Sale to Minors. Do Not Consume.") and White Water Rapid (which says not for human consumption, but also carries the warning "Enjoy with caution.") (Also check the packaging pictures in this story copied from a Web site that claims to sell legal highs at wholesale prices.)

At the recent anti-bath salts rally outside 420 Emporium on Ellicott Street, one of the protesters found a discarded package of "Party Rocks," a "tie dye" substance, according to the package.

One online site that advertises possible designer drugs describes "Party Rocks" this way:

If you loved the laid back 70's or maybe you are just a New Age Hippie at heart, then you will love these great Tie Dye Capsules. Unlike the ones you find at the local super store, these capsules dont have a bad chemical smell and won't leave your house looking like a dye factory. The pleasant orange aroma and easy to follow instructions will have you ready for a 70's style party in no time. Each pack contains two capsules and is just enough to make even the lamest things look cool. This item is not to be consumed and should only be used on fabric.  

An online discussion forum for apparent drug users gives users a chance to review such substances. It contained this comment:

One such product are Party Rocks Tie Dye Concentrate. Two capsules, filled with reddish pink/white powder (to the brim) that you dissolve in water and squirt on a t-shirt, then let dry for 12 hours. Well I wore my shirt right away, and It was amazing...

The next comment, though, is more direct about how the substance may be used.

Hey bud, would you mind being a just a smidge more clear about what these do? It almost sounds like this stuff is psychedelic. Or is it just another in the long line of stims?

There are legitimate "bath salts" you can buy either online or in many types of retail shops, of course -- the kind of product you dump into warm water before relaxing in the soothing soft liquid as it washes over your body after a long, hard day; but, the products sold up to now as "bath salts" carry no marketing message that would indicate they would be aromatic.

Clearly, the thinly veiled marketing of these products sold by head shops or online herbal stores as a plant food or iPod cleaner suggests they are not really intended for either of those purposes.

Glenn Duncan, executive director of the Hunterdon Drug Awareness Program in Flemington, N.J., has studied synthetic drugs extensively and maintains one of the most informative Web pages available on the constantly changing analog landscape.

At some point, prosecutors, Duncan agrees, will need to work with law enforcement to find creative ways to arrest producers and sellers of these products when existing laws prove inadequate, or until legislation better fits today's illicit drug market.

"Quite obviously, these things are sold for human consumption," Duncan said.

The current scheme of waiting for new drugs to hit the market and then outlawing the substances once they've proven harmful is not working, Duncan said.

For example, MDPV emerged in bath salts in 2005. The first MDPV-related seizure was reported in 2006. It's only been a Schedule I controlled substance in New York for less than a year, and federally since July 9. By the time it was banned, most "bath salt" products being sold no longer contained MDPV.

To become a controlled substance, a chemical compound must first get listed on an emergency schedule and tested by the FDA. Not every substance that goes through this process is later banned as a controlled substance.

The process is slow, cumbersome and doesn't always yield results that keeps dangerous drugs off the streets.

"Chemists will always be five years ahead of the federal government," Duncan said.

The bill that banned MDPV with President Barack Obama's signature on July 9 also banned mephedrone, and Duncan is frustrated that the legislation sponsored by Sen. Charles Schumer didn't go far enough.

An earlier version of the bill also would have banned naphyrone, but somewhere along the line for reasons that Duncan said are not entirely clear, naphyrone was dropped from the bill.

Even so, there are a total of 83 substances, as far as Duncan knows, that are used in bath salt and bath salt-like products.

"In his press release Sen. Schumer said this put 'the final nail in the coffin for legal bath salts,' " Duncan said. "It was the most ridiculous statement I ever saw. I was angered by it. If he looked at my Web site, he would see 83 substances listed. He put two nails in a coffin that needs 83 nails."

For example, there are now products appearing in retail outlets containing pentedrone, which hasn't been scheduled yet, but is already sending people to emergency rooms.

Kansas is apparently doing its best to keep abreast of new synthetic cannabinoids, and a law enforcement official in Salina said it appears that fake pot is a bigger problem in the state than bath salts. This week, authorities in Kansas issued an emergency ban on UR-144, which has been marketed under several brand names, including "Halo Zombie Matter."

MORE after the jump (click on headline to read more):

Given the difficulty of keeping up with clandestine chemists, Talbot thinks federal and local law enforcement officials need to get more aggressive about using the analog laws to apprehend and prosecute the people who distribute and sell synthetic drugs, even though it's not as easy as arresting somebody on a cocaine or heroin charge.

"Does it take a little more work to build a case?" Talbot said. "Absolutely. But we are killing people on this. We have kids who are doing it. We've documented many cases where weeks and weeks after they stopped using it, they committed suicide. (These drugs) interfere with serotonin receptors and that leads to long-term depression. It's worth a little extra work to address that."

It was this kind of state-level analog law that brought Eric Srack to justice in Kansas.

New York apparently has no similar analog law on the books, though it does have a law banning the sale of substances that turn out to be fake controlled substances (as opposed to something meant to mimic controlled substances).

New York Public Health, Title 7, Section 3383, covering imitation controlled substances makes it a misdemeanor to market, sell or distribute any substance that in its packaging or intent is a counterfeit controlled substance.

The law is intended merely to deal with the sale of fake prescription drugs, but it was used this month to arrest a person allegedly selling fake LSD in Waterloo.

Major Wayne Olson, head of the community narcotics enforcement division of the State Police, said he isn't aware of Section 3383 being used to prosecute dealers of analog drugs and doesn't see it as a viable option.

"The enforcement of a law is only as good as it's written," Olson said. "We can't change the language that's in the statute. The creative approach of using a statute up to this point hasn't worked out from a law enforcement perspective."

Olson said he and his peers are hopeful that the legislature will get serious about passing a broad enough measure to sweep in a range of synthetic compounds and give law enforcement the means to go after people who sell drugs that aren't necessarily specifically banned by compound name.

"The biggest tool we have right now is educational, because you know as well as I do, you can't legislatire away everything that is really bad," Olson said.

Another legal option being discussed in law enforcement circles is the use of New York's statutes against reckless endangerment.

Section 120.20 of the Penal Code:

A person is guilty of reckless endangerment in the second degree when he recklessly engages in conduct which creates a substantial risk of serious physical injury to another person.

The crime is a Class A misdemeanor.

A prosecutor would have to prove that an employee or shop owner knew the substance was harmful, could cause serious injury or impairment, and sold it anyway.

Successful prosecution would probably require an undercover purchase of the product in advance, having it lab tested and then warning the merchant of the dangers, and then only making an arrest if the shop continues to sell it. 

The concept of prosecuting for reckless endangerment highlights another problem for local law enforcement in combating synthetic drugs: testing. The newer the drug, the fewer the labs that can test the compound and identify it. Testing new substances takes time and costs money. 

Another promising approach to curtailing the sale of synthetic drugs, Talbot said, is the kind of civil action recently undertaken by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to target the seemingly disceptive labeling of chemical products under consumer protection laws.

In New York, a whole host of consumer products require manufacturers to notify the state of the chemicals in the products, including carpet cleaners, spot removers, upholstery cleaners and glass cleaners (all names given to products believed to be a form of synthetic drug at some point).

Depending on how a product is defined and what it contains, federal law requires:

  • Ingredient information
  • Poison warning
  • Instructions on what to do if ingested
  • Childproof packaging
  • Directions for use of the product
  • The name and legal address of the manufacturer

Labeling laws could become critical in chasing down basement chemists who continually release modified substances onto the market.

Another strategy that has been used in a few locations in New York is for municipalities to pass their own local laws banning the substances.

In villages where local ordinances have been passed banning the sale and possession of bath salts, the problem seems to have gone away, according to at least one report by Rocco LaDuca in the Utica Observer-Dispatch.

In Rome, for example, the police chief there, Kevin Beach, told LaDuca that the bath salt-related calls have dropped dramatically since officers have been able to enforce a local law against the substance.

“I believe it is very clear to the business owners and to the users out there that we are taking this very serious and we’re not going to tolerate it,” Rome Police Chief Kevin Beach said. “I believe it’s had a tremendous impact, and we’ll continue to enforce it if we get complaints that it’s being sold some place.”

Such laws, however, are still aimed at trying to keep abreast of the chemical trade.

If the government response is to repeatedly just ban new substances as they are formulated, then law enforcement will always behind the curve, Talbot said.

One thing Schumer's bill got right, and is a bold experiment, Duncan said, is a catch-all ban on any substance that binds to the CB-1 receptor. All synthetic cannabinoids -- drugs designed to mimic marijuana in some respect -- must bind to the CB-1 receptor in the human brain.

While Schumer's bill bans at least 18 substances that are synthetic cannabinoids, the omnibus ban could have the most effect in slowing the synthetic marijuana drug trade.

"Marijuana is unique in that it has its own receptors," Duncan said. "You can't take that approach with every drug out there."

The synthetic marijuana trade began with a grant in 1984 from National Institute on Drug Abuse to John W. Huffman, now a professor emeritus of organic chemistry at Clemson University.

Huffman and his team were researching cannabinoids to aid with treatment of multiple sclerosis, AIDS, and chemotherapy.

The team created 450 compounds, which is why when you read about synthetic marijuana you see references to chemical compounds known as JWH-081, JWH-133 as well as JWH-122, JWH-210, JWH-018 and JWH-073 (the compounds at the heart of the Srack case in Kansas).

In the early part of this century, German dealers began selling K2 and Spice based on two compounds developed at Clemson.

Huffman has reportedly said, “I figured once it got started in Germany it was going to spread. I’m concerned that it could hurt people. I think this was something that was more or less inevitable. It bothers me that people are so stupid as to use this stuff."

According to an article by Duncan, synthetic cannabinoids have been linked to "impaired driving, attempted suicides, and emergency department visits" and have shown such adverse effects as "increased anxiety, panic attacks, heart palpitations, respiratory complications, aggression, mood swings, altered perception and paranoia."

In some online forums, even self-identified drug users question the wisdom of consuming K2 and Spice.

In one online-posting, a person wrote, "I tried a couple times. I didn't notice any adverse affects, but a buddy thought his heart was going to explode, it was beating so hard. I won't ever do it again."

Some reported loss of memory and observing others appearing to suddenly just be really stupid.

While applauding Schumer's effort to ban all synthetic cannabinoids, Duncan also harbors doubts that the plan will work. In his online articles he's noted that some researchers are concerned there isn't enough science available yet to say whether the ban will hold up in court.

Even if the synthetic cannabinoids ban does work, the ban doesn't address the myriad of ways chemists might find to produce euphoria, stimulation and hallucinations. There are no single receptors for those highs, Duncan said.

With all of these chemicals -- whether they've been around since 1929, such as mephedrone, or since 1969, such MDPV (methylenedioxypyrovalerone), or something of a more recent vintage, such as naphyrone -- underground chemists are always looking for new compounds and new methods to combine them in ways that create new "legal" highs.

While chemists might expect a certain combination of chemicals to produce certain effects, there's no evidence chemists put their substances through any sort of rigorous lab testing to determine how the chemicals might interact with biological chemistry.

Any attempt to determine negative side effects or long-term damage seem not to be part of the process of bringing new products to market.

Look at the history of mephedrone and MDPV, which were reportedly first marketed as legal highs in 2003 and 2005. 

Producers promised euphoria and increased mental alertness. What users also experienced, according to Duncan's research, included rapid heartbeat, increase in blood pressure, vasoconstriction and sweating; while mental symptoms included an inability to sleep, anxiety, agitation, loss of appetite and intense desire to re-dose.

The so-called bath salt products seem to combined stimulation and an altered mental state that leads to intense hallucinations, agitation and paranoia.

That combination of effects may explain some of the bizarre behavior associated with these products.

There have been reports of people:

There've even been cases where murder was blamed on bath salts.

Locally, we've seen reports of paranoid conspiracy theories, suicidal thoughts, people normally afraid of heights climbing onto rooftops, arguments involving knives and other threats of violence, people going to the hospital with seizures and extreme body temperatures.

How we got to this so-called "zombie apocalypse" has a lot to do with that 1914 law Talbot mentioned. State and federal laws address substances, not outcomes.

Some in law enforcement believe one answer to the synthetic drug trade is to create new laws aimed at prosecuting people who are found intoxicated on such substances, whether specifically scheduled as a controlled substance or not. Part of the theory is that if users were arrested on misdemeanors for ingesting such chemicals, they could more easily be shepherded into a drug-treatment program.

Duncan does think the news media has overplayed some bath salt-related news, but at least the public is being made more aware of these dangerous drugs (whether they lead to face eating or not).

In Duncan's home state, New Jeresy, legislators passed "Pamela's Law" after the murder of Pamela Schmidt in March 2011. Schmidt's mother told reporters that she believed the chief suspect in the case, William Parisio Jr., (who has not been convicted) was on bath salts. Later, prosecutors announced that a complete toxicology report on Parisio found no evidence that the substance banned in Pamela's Law, MDPV, was in Parisio's system at the time of his arrest.

Schmidt's death spurred the New Jersey Legislature to action to ban MDPV at a time when another synthetic drug bill had been stalled in committee.

"The synthetic marijuana bill sat and languished in sub-committees for over a year, however, due to this woman’s tragic death, the bath salts bill was passed in a matter of months after introduction" Duncan said.

What we now call the War on Drugs had in genesis in the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 and is underpinned by the idea that if the supply of illicit drugs can be snuffed out at border crossings, it will decrease supply, drive up prices and reduce use.

The unintended consequence, as Shafer points out in his article, is that it may have helped create the designer-drug market.

While some sources indicate that designer drugs are mostly created in Eastern European labs and manufactured in China and Indonesia, there's also evidence that chemicals are being combined right in the United States.

Even if products are coming from overseas, the smaller packages and odors of synthetic compounds may be missed by K-9s trained in the detection of organic drugs.

Either way, the compounds are so inexpensive to manufacture and sold at wholesale so cheaply that distributors reap huge profits.

A blog dedicated to stamping out synthetic marijuana reports that retailers purchase such products for $2 to $5 per packet, which then retail for $20 to $30 per packet.

The Marietta Times reported last year that one retailer accused of selling bath salts was generating $4,000 a day in profits.

At these profits, it may not be surprising that the rate of change for synthetic drugs seems to be accelerating as illicit chemists try to stay ahead of law enforcement efforts to curtail the sales of such substances.

A lab that specializes in recreating the chemical compounds found in synthetic drugs reported a few days ago that they're seeing a faster release cycle for new chemicals.

Who knows what negative, unintended consequences these new substances might unleash?

Talbot won't predict what comes next, whether the next wave of addicts will be even more dangerous to themselves or others, or whether some other behavior might become evident.

But he does know there will be a next wave and the bath salt craze won't go on indefinately.

In fact, because the publicity of the dangers of bath salts has been so intense, it's a fad that will burn itself out fast, Talbot believes.

Talbot compared drug epidemics with disease epidemics. If a disease is slow to catch on and cause serious illness and death, the epidemic lasts much longer, Talbot said, than one where people get sick and die quickly.

The same thing happens with drug epidemics, he said.

"When a drug is new, it's trendy and a lot of people jump on the bandwagon," Talbot said. "When bad things happen to those people, the drug tends to reach a plateau. The drug becomes unpopular. We then see very low abuse levels. Most drugs tend to follow this pattern. We're on an upswing with bath salts now, but as with most harmful drugs, the shorter the cycle. I think we'll see bath salts burn themselves out."

Sgt. Steve Hauck of the Utica PD thinks combating synthetic drugs is going to take a combination of education, laws, law enforcment and drug treatment.

"There is no one thing that is going to stop this problem," Hauck said. "You need all of those things to make it work. When you have one or two of those things fail, then you have a drug problem that is out of control."

Could things get worse before they get better. The experts hope not, but as Duncan noted, sometimes bad things have to happen before people take action. Talbot sees the same phenomena playing out.

"I think that as more and more kids become sick, hospitalized, die from (new drugs), people will start asking why the government isn't doing something," Talbot said.

"I think there is going to be increasing pressure on prosecutors and law enforcement to become more innovative in addressing synthetic drugs. We can’t continue to use our old techniques and use our old ways of enforcing 20th Century narcotic laws."

Irene Will
Irene Will's picture
Last seen: 3 days 23 hours ago
Joined: Feb 2 2009 - 2:01pm

Great article, Howard. Hope all the Federal, State and local prosecutors read it.

tom hunt
tom hunt's picture
Last seen: 3 days 2 hours ago
Joined: Jan 31 2009 - 9:08am

An interesting side article on the 83 banned chemicals. I should have paid closer attention in H.S. and college organic chemistry classes.

Thomas Gahr
Thomas Gahr's picture
Last seen: 5 years 1 week ago
Joined: Jun 17 2008 - 1:22pm

Terrific article Howard. Incredibly informative it also puts Bath Salts into the larger context of previous synthetic drugs, and the legislative and law enforcement efforts to eradicate them. This is great journalism. The kind we used to expect from the traditional news sources. Keep up the great work.

Howard B. Owens
Howard B. Owens's picture
Last seen: 2 days 13 hours ago
Joined: Apr 23 2008 - 3:05pm

Thanks, Thomas.

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