Fake Highs, Real Risks: The Dangers of “Legal” Synthetic Drugs

December 7, 2011Sectorby David Smith

Fake Highs, Real Risks: The Dangers of “Legal” Synthetic Drugs

Powerful and unpredictable synthetic drugs that mimic the effects of marijuana, cocaine, and other illegal substances, are leaving a trail of paranoia, hallucinations and death across the US.

Dr Mark Ryan, the director of the Louisiana Poison Centre, has never seen a worse drug crisis than the one which has gripped the United States over the past two years. Dr Ryan, who has been at the frontline of the drug war for 20 years, says the rise of the synthetic drug trade poses unprecedented problems.

“So-called ‘Bath Salts’ are the most dangerous illicit drugs I’ve seen,” he said. “These products roared into the US like a hurricane last year. They came ashore in Louisiana, then flooded other states with cases and continue to leave devastation in their wake. I’ve seen major problems from long-term abuse of heroin and cocaine. But the sheer number of people showing up in accident and emergency in Louisiana with truly serious symptoms after ingesting Bath Salts was much worse on a case-by-case basis.”

Bath Salts, or Toilet Cleaners, are crystalized chemicals produced in laboratories. They are usually snorted and contain two powerful stimulants: methylenedioxypyrovalerone (or MDPV) and mephedrone, which mimic the effects of cocaine, LSD and methamphetamine.  The products have been sold on the internet, at gas stations and head shops. They are known by a variety of names, including Red Dove, Cloud Nine, Purple Wave and Bliss. Physicians generally treat overdoses with anti-anxiety medication such as Valium and Xanax, which eases the drug-fuelled activity in the brain and body.

Bath Salts are the second wave of synthetic drugs to hit the US. Last year, the synthetic drug of choice was fake marijuana, which is marketed under brand names such as Spice, K2, Skunk and Zohai. It is made by spraying dried plant material with one of several synthetic cannabinoids, such as cannabicyclohexanol, JWH-018, JWH-073, or HU-210. It is packaged to look like pot and smoked, but the effects are different.

“It’s meant to create a similar reaction to marijuana, but patients often report the opposite – a fast, racing heartbeat, elevated blood pressure and nausea,” said Missouri Poison Center Medical Director Anthony J. Scalzo.  

The American market for synthetic drugs has exploded at breakneck speed. In 2010, there were 2,915 calls about synthetic marijuana to the US’s 57 poison centres, but this year there had already been 5,741 calls by October 31. Bath Salts were a relatively rare commodity in 2010, with just 303 calls, but have become as common as synthetic marijuana, with 5,625 calls by October 31.

When the first cases involving Bath Salts arrived in Louisiana last September, Dr Ryan was at a loss to understand the symptoms. There had only been a handful of cases around the US at that time, but in Louisiana the numbers soared suddenly. In December 2010, Louisiana, which has a population of 4.5 million, had 61 percent of Bath Salts’ cases reported to US Poison Centres.

“We started to notice patients with extreme psychosis, paranoia and delusions. They had both auditory and visual hallucinations. We also saw in some patients extreme chest pains, like having heart attacks,” he said.

Louisiana Police also reported encounters with people suffering from bizarre types of psychosis.

“There were a lot of horror stories. The psychosis can be truly remarkable, in a very scary way,” said Dr Ryan. “One man was locked in his attic with a gun. He said there were aliens in the attic and he was going to kill them before they killed him. We had people shooting up their homes because voices told them to do it. One man who cut himself many times with a sharp knife said he was removing the wires someone had placed in his body.”

Dr Ryan contacted colleagues at other US Poison Centres, but most of them were still in the dark. He found himself almost alone in the United States fighting a new drug phenomenon and turned to European research for answers. Europe was where the first synthetic drugs had emerged in 2007. What Dr Ryan learned about the substances made him realise the urgency of getting a state ban on the substances in Bath Salts, or synthetic cathinones.

By the end of 2010, Louisiana had counted 172 cases of Bath Salt poisoning, including the first death, and there had only been 303 cases all over the US. Louisiana State Police had their eye on a small number of manufacturers who were making heaps of cash, around $150,000 a week, but there was nothing legally that could be done to stop them.

“We talked with health officials and state legislature, and we said we can’t wait for new laws in spring or summer. We need something now,” said Dr Ryan. “Credit has to go the governor and state officials because they acted quickly and Louisiana passed the first comprehensive ban on synthetic cathinones on January 6, 2011.”

The ban had an immediate effect. The Bath Salts started disappearing from grocery stores, gas stations and head shops in Louisiana. The problem has not gone away, but the Louisiana Poison Centre is getting 8-11 calls a month now, which is just 1 percent of calls in the US.

Florida was the next state to issue a ban. Worried about teens arriving for Spring break, officials quickly consulted with the state of Louisiana, then outlawed the same six substances. Some other US states followed suit, but too many were slow to react and their problems got worse.

More horror stories emerged from around the US. They ranged from the tragic to the utterly bizarre, but each one involved hallucinations and psychosis. In Kentucky, a mother high on Bath Salts abandoned her two-year-old son along a highway after imagining he was a demon; in West Virginia, a man dressed up in a bra and panties stabbed his neighbour’s pygmy goat to death; in Hawaii, a man threw his girlfriend off an 11th-floor balcony while high on Spice; in Fulton, Mississippi, a man slit his face and stomach with a hunting knife after Bath Salts-induced hallucinations.

But the most notorious case involved 18-year-old David Rozga, from Indianola. He got high on K2, then complained to a friend “that he felt like he was in hell”. Despite never having suffered from depression, he returned home and killed himself with a shotgun.

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