Designer Drugs Debacle

By on September 22, 2012

By Nancy Luse

Photographs by Jim Hamann

In the whack-a-mole Spice world, synthetic drugs are no sooner declared controlled substances than another legal chemical compound pops up to take its place. So what’s the solution to the problem?

A man walks into a gas station … so the story begins as if a setup to a punch line. But it turns out to be no joke. The man buys a package of “K2” and smokes it. Later, he pulls his car onto the shoulder of an interstate highway outside of Frederick, strips naked and runs up the road, prompting drivers to reach for their cell phones and call police.

He was brought to the emergency department of Frederick Memorial Hospital (FMH) where Jason Barth, a licensed clinical professional counselor, called it yet another case where the ingested chemical compound “turns perfectly normal, sane people into animals.” The patient, a grad student with the looks of a GQ model, seemed hardly the type to be reduced to a psychotic heap, he notes, adding that use of these synthetic drugs is being seen “in all ages and not just certain demographics.”

Yet the effects are similar for every user. “We’ve seen patients attack people on the unit, where we have to put spit masks on them because they’re biting at people. Several days later they’re asking, ‘Where am I? How did I get here?’” says Barth, who has been at FMH for four years and has been practicing clinical counseling for the past decade.

In addition to exhibiting psychotic behavior, some patients suffer from high blood pressure, a rapid heartbeat, dizziness, nausea and seizures. Barth is unaware of any deaths locally from the substances, “but I wouldn’t be surprised,” he says, to hear about fatal strokes resulting from the substances.

The use of designer drugs such as “K2” and “Spice” — a synthetic marijuana marketed as potpourri or herb incense and labeled as “not for human consumption” — has taken root in Frederick. “Bath salts,” another chemical compound that can produce reactions similar to the effects of cocaine or amphetamines use, also appear on the local radar.

Martha Gurzick, clinical nurse specialist for pediatrics at FMH for 1 1/2 years, has worked with kids suffering bad reactions from the drugs. “It’s definitely in the community. I’ve seen discarded wrappers just walking down the street,” she says. “It’s here. It’s a problem.”

Local health professionals and law enforcement officials say a large part of that problem is that the stuff is legal — even if the makers are just one step ahead of the law. The federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) routinely adds compounds contained in designer drugs to its list of controlled dangerous substances, thereby making it possible to federally and locally charge a person with possessing or selling the compounds. But all a lab has to do is tweak the recipe and they’re good to go again.

Citing public safety as its concern, in March 2011, the DEA used an emergency provision to add certain compounds to its list. But this listing status eventually will expire, say local police officials. And while the recently passed federal “Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act” makes more of these chemical ingredients illegal as controlled substances when it takes effect in October, many authorities don’t believe it will have much impact.

Changing drug dynamics

Back in the 1980s, Frederick city police had drug-fighting initiatives with names like “Crack-Down” and “STOP.” Police would swoop in and make arrests during these efforts that targeted the public housing complexes where crack cocaine deals took place in courtyards in the middle of the day or places where customers in cars lined up in an alley like it was a McDonald’s drive-through. It was a cat and mouse game: Cops worked undercover to blend into the scene. The police chief hid inside a cardboard refrigerator box and was wheeled into an empty apartment so that he could conduct surveillance.

Residents in these places feared gunshots or their kids getting a hold of crack that might be discarded into a bush or window well during a raid. There were also everyday annoyances like pizza places refusing to make deliveries to these neighborhoods and people tired of replacing porch light bulbs that were removed by drug dealers preferring to do their business in the dark.

Today, the city’s initiative is known simply as the Drug Enforcement Unit. John Hanson public housing on North Bentz Street, a place where police once dodged laundry hanging in the courtyard to chase down the bad guys, has been converted into mixed-use housing. The residences are touted for their use of solar power and other environmentally friendly trappings; the front porches are even decorated with geraniums.

Certainly there are still arrests in the city for crack, powdered cocaine, heroin, PCP and marijuana. However, police no longer stake out a public phone routinely used for making deals, for example, because almost everyone uses cell phones and public phones no longer exist.

“We’re sort of isolated in Frederick, but if you look at a map, all the roads facilitate drug movement,” says Kim C. Dine who was a Washington, D.C. cop for 27 years before becoming Frederick’s police chief 10 years ago. He believes the drug enforcement mission is to reduce the shootings, assaults, burglaries, turf wars and the other crimes caused by illegal narcotics that threaten the peace and safety of the community.

Capt. Tom Ledwell, who joined the Frederick police force a little more than 20 years ago, says, “I’ve given the direction to the drug unit that it’s about quality of life, whether it’s in the richest neighborhood or public housing.” Looking specifically at the designer drug phenomenon, he says, “Over recent years, these have exploded.”

According to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Maryland Poison Control received 159 calls related to the use of synthetic cannabinoids as of Aug. 31 of this year. More than half involved people age 19 or younger, and four resulted in admission to intensive care units.

‘Not for human consumption’

There’s an added danger, Ledwell warns. “You don’t know where you’re getting this stuff from. The labels say ‘not for human consumption,’ wink, wink, nod, nod,” he observes. Plus, with the ever-changing formulas, users can never be sure just what they’re getting in each packet; the effects can be inconsistent and unpredictable to say the least.

“From what we hear, people are not sure what it does,” Dine says. He recalls backing up another officer who was in a tussle with a guy who was totally out of control. The individual said he had used “Spice,” downed a caffeine/alcohol drink and had consumed some over the counter medicine — all of it converged into one hot mess.

Designer drugs arrived in Frederick about two years ago. “The first thing we did was to reach out to the health department,” Dine says. Sgt. Dwight Sommers, supervisor of the drug enforcement unit, has also put together a presentation for school guidance counselors. Officers are a regular part of Neighborhood Advisory Councils (NACs) where drug problems often are discussed. At FMH, Gurzick says the police department has provided information to educate hospital staff, and she’s involved in the school health council of the public schools. “We’ve talked about it there. We’re all tied together and on board that there’s a problem,” she says. 

One action police can’t perform is seizing designer drugs because they’re not an illegal product. But the department has sent letters to merchants — at last count, six city businesses stock the products with four of them on Market Street and one across the street from FMH — letting them know the latest from the DEA. “Our goal is to gain compliance, not take enforcement action,” clarifies Ledwell.

In a follow-up email, the police captain writes, “We are currently researching whether or not it would be beneficial to have a local ordinance in Frederick. We are not sure it would give us any additional benefit to existing laws. We are still working on the research phase of this process.”  

Charlie Smith, Maryland State’s Attorney for Frederick County, thinks the DEA’s publication of illegal “Spice” ingredients, names like “cannabicyclohexanol” or “JWH-018,” has an unintended consequence. Drug labs can simply remove it from their compounds and still remain legal.

“That’s the problem, that makes it really, really tough. It’s very time consuming when we have to test all this stuff. We have a forensic chemist on staff, Melissa Kline, who can barely handle the current caseload,” Smith laments. His office has a Felony Narcotics Unit with three prosecutors, plus a person devoted to prosecuting gang crimes. “There are so many drug cases that prosecutors in other units handle the excess that the unit cannot handle due to volume.”

There is no love lost between Smith and merchants selling these products. “I strongly believe that those selling these compounds are nothing more than common drug dealers. They know the tremendous dangers involved for our youth, and to sell them as incense is utter nonsense. They market them specifically to our youth, even advertising spice clubs and the like. The dealers are well aware these kids are smoking this garbage, and as a result, winding up in hospitals. You’re not going to strike a moral code with sellers; you have to hit them in the pocketbook, they make tons of money from this junk.”

Smith suggests that “we approach it from a regulatory standpoint. Force the dealers to be licensed, and put the onus on them to regularly have their product tested to ensure it does not contain prohibited compounds … they say it’s legal, OK, prove it.” However, he has no answer to where the manufacturing takes place. “Whether it’s being made in the states — it’s not something we’ve investigated.”

Smith, chairman of the Maryland State’s Attorney’s Association Legislative Committee, says the idea of local ordinances was a hot topic in Annapolis this past session. The proposal arose particularly after Worcester County, home to Ocean City where the fake drugs were a large problem, put ordinances in place. He questions such open-ended laws, wondering, for example, if something like Drano could then be deemed illegal if someone sprinkled it on parsley leaves and smoked it. Ultimately, the criminal prosecutor returns to his recommendation of imposing hefty regulations that would make the production and sales of designer drugs unprofitable as the most effective solution to the problem.

It’s just business

Joe Cohen, owner of Classic Cigars and British Goodies on North Market Street, has jars of lemon curd and packages of tea biscuits on the shelves. His store contains a walk-in cigar humidor — reflective of the store’s name. He also has a glass display case near the cash register with packets of “Mr. Nice Guy” and “Out of This World.” A package label calls them “burnables not for human consumption” and a sign advises “must be 18 years or older to purchase potpourri.” A “house blend” sells for $10 a gram or 5 grams for $39.

Cohen has been selling “Spice” since last year, saying he’s simply following the tenants of business, the law of supply and demand. “In this economy, anything’s good,” he says. “Anything I sell in my store, including wine, is addictive — cigarettes, chocolate, potato chips — none of these things are good for you,” but they’re legal.

“It’s fashionable to attack ‘Spice’ right now,” he says. “Nobody has died from taking ‘Spice,’ but in 2011, there were 79,000 alcohol-related deaths. But don’t take my word for it; look it up.” (According to statistics cited in a U.S. government study, “Alcohol abuse kills some 75,000 Americans each year and shortens the lives of these people by an average of 30 years. Excessive alcohol consumption is the third leading cause of preventable death in the U.S. after tobacco use and poor eating and exercise habits.”)

“Should I stop selling alcohol because of that?” Cohen asks. “And what about emphysema from smoking? Where are the complaints about that? If you think I’m bad, look at school cafeterias” and the unhealthy foods being served, he points out.

The storeowner says he has a self-imposed rule that “Spice” be sold only to those ages18 and older. “If you can get shot in Iraq and Afghanistan” at 18, he says, people should be allowed to make a decision about what they consume. “Our people are trained to check IDs,” he notes. “Bath salts” and “K2” won’t be found in his store, he says, “because they are banned products, and I will not sell banned products” that are on government lists.

What he does stock is “labeled ‘Not for Human Consumption,’” Cohen states. “I cannot control what people do. Look at other products — glue. What are you going to do? Have Ace Hardware check IDs?” Recalling an alcohol and caffeine drink that was pulled off the market, Cohen says “They took out the energy part of it, but any fool can drop an energy drink into alcohol. It’s not my problem.”

A pair of decals on the front store window declares support for local police and Cohen says he has no beef with them; it’s the “do-gooders” that get him ruffled. “People who are screaming to make it illegal seem to forget what happened during Prohibition,” he asserts, adding that if “Spice” is made illegal and driven underground, you won’t have vendors checking ID and there would be more for drug cartels to control.

Cohen’s choice of product line, however, has proven problematic for MaryJean Clark, owner of Voila! In Frederick, a tea shop located two doors down from Classic Cigars and British Goodies. 

“It’s really impacted my business,” Clark says, whether from a littering perspective — everything from plastic drug bags, blunt ends from the cigarettes, discarded clothing, drink cans and vomit — to the “riff-raff perspective.” She says groups of “Spice” smokers often congregate on a set of steps leading to apartments above her store.

“If you want to kill yourself — don’t do it on my steps,” she declares. “I was in here late one night and there was a guy out there vomiting. His friends laughed about it and started taking pictures of him.” Cars with out-of-state tags double-park while the passengers run in for “Spice,” people panhandle on the sidewalk and younger kids arrange for older people to buy for them, she notes. This past summer, a burglar broke into Cohen’s shop and stole more than 600 Spice packets with a total retail value of $13,552.48.

Standing one rainy Sunday afternoon on her front steps, Clark tells how she “took a leap of faith and quit my job” in tech sales to follow a dream of owning the store which has been open almost two years. She’s been battling the “Spice” fallout for seven or eight months, calling police every day and taking photos of the people hanging around outside. Initially disappointed by the police response, she says she’s been encouraged by the recent formation of a Downtown Nuisance Task Force.

“They arrested the ‘Face-Eater’ this weekend for panhandling,” Clark says, referring to a man whose nickname fit his profile because he looked that scary and psychotic in person. She also recalls a good-looking, well-dressed couple that her boyfriend saw when he was in Cohen’s store. “A week later he saw them dressed in the same clothes, needing a bath, looking all strung out … it’s crazy.”

“I thought I was going to die”

Julian, 23, of Berryville, Virginia, travels to Frederick for treatment of a back injury he received playing on his college tennis team. The city is also where he visited a head shop and bought “Spice.” Julian sheepishly asks that his last name not be published. “I know it’s legal,” he says, but he didn’t want what he said getting back to his employer or embarrassing his parents. Seated on a bench at the 7th Street fountain, he also admits to marijuana use, which of course is not legal.

He sought out the synthetic pot substitute while a senior at the small Virginia college he attended, because he was concerned about passing a drug test for a job search. “That’s the big reason people use it — it doesn’t show up,” he explains, adding that another advantage is “you don’t have to deal with shady characters” like you do buying weed.

(However, it should be noted that a handful of laboratories now offer effective testing for the use of these substances, which standard drug tests typically do not detect.)

 Julian says he used “Spice” twice but will never do it again. “The first time I kind of felt something. It was not pleasurable. I had a high heart rate and fuzziness,” he recalls. The second time, “I thought I was going to die … my heart was beating uncontrollably. I was light-headed and had the symptoms of a heart attack.”

He observes, “I haven’t met anyone who’s liked it. It doesn’t enhance anything; it doesn’t make anything better and it’s dangerous.”

A criminal justice and political science major who plans to go back to school for his paralegal certificate, Julian currently works at a CVS. He advocates the legalization of marijuana as a way to combat designer drugs. “How many people have gone to the ER for smoking too much pot?” He believes a major reason natural marijuana stays illegal is because “pharmaceutical companies can’t profit from it,” citing a visit he once made to his doctor complaining of back pain: “I was in and out in 20 minutes. He asked a couple of questions, gave me Vicodin and a muscle relaxer and billed my insurance $1,600. I didn’t want it; I wanted him to fix it. Money is power and pharmacy has money. Pot activists don’t.”.

Although Barth doesn’t advocate pot smoking, , the FMH clinical counselor says there is nonetheless “an antipsychotic component in marijuana,” causing users to get high and mellow. “Spice and K2 don’t have that natural component; instead of getting high, people get crazy and violent,” he states. 

Barth has seen patients who “have been with us for weeks” because they’ve been admitted to the psych unit. He recalls having to tell the family of one individual that “we’ve done all we can do; we’ll have to let nature take its course. He was in his early 20s, wonderful family, nice kid…..”



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