A small town in Oklahoma is grieving for two college students who died after using synthetic drugs this spring. In the past year, more than 20 deaths have been linked to the use of products sold under such innocuous names as bath salts, plant food, herbal incense and research chemicals.
Past midnight, Kat Green arrived home from her police shift exhausted. She pulled the ponytail from her hair, slid into pajamas and clicked on the television. Then her smartphone started ringing with urgent messages.
Mass drug overdose. Party at a ranch house outside of town.
Green yanked her black police shirt over her head and sped off into the spring night. On the way, more information trickled in: At least a half-dozen young adults sick, some near death. She knew she had to be strong. In a town of just 1,300 people, she was bound to know some of them.
As the squad car raced up a dusty gravel driveway near 1 a.m., emergency lights flickering, Green spotted three young men writhing on the front lawn. The lanky one in the front looked familiar.
"Oh my God," she thought, running closer. "That's my son."
Colton, 20, was still breathing, but his mouth foamed and his eyes rolled back in his head. He could only growl.
Green grabbed her son by the shoulders. She tried to rouse life from his rigid body. "Colton! Colton!" she hollered in his face. "Son, what did you take?"
• • •
From rural Oklahoma to suburban Minnesota, a tide of dangerous synthetic drugs is causing mayhem and baffling police and prosecutors across the nation.
Packaged and sold as innocuous products such as "herbal incense" and "bath salts," the drugs are touted by users as legal alternatives to marijuana, cocaine and other controlled substances that can bring stiff penalties and jail time in even small amounts.
But the consequences of using them are proving to be devastating.
This spring, synthetic drugs sent shock through a suburban Twin Cities neighborhood after a house party went awry. Eleven teens and young adults had to be rushed to hospitals after snorting a synthetic drug in Blaine. A 19-year-old died hours later after doctors removed his life support.
In Mississippi, a man high on bath salts stole a gun from one sheriff's deputy, then shot another dead. He told deputies that he saw the devil and broke through gurney straps and medical tape when they tried to force him into an ambulance.
In Iowa, an 18-year-old student smoked synthetic marijuana with some friends, then told them he felt like he was in hell. He went home and shot himself.
In an upscale suburb of New Orleans, a doctor's son, high on bath salts, slit his throat in front of his family, then later took a shotgun to his head.
Outside Seattle, a 38-year-old man killed his wife, then himself, during a high-speed police chase in April. Police found their 5-year-old son dead at home. Both parents had bath salts in their systems.
Altogether, poison control centers have received more than 6,600 calls about designer synthetics this year, 10 times more than the first half of 2010. Synthetic drugs have been linked or suspected in more than 20 deaths nationally in the past year, while emergency rooms are treating more patients who have overdosed on sometimes tiny amounts of designer synthetics.
Mark Ryan, director of the Louisiana Poison Center, said he has seen "bizarre reports" from all over the country.
"The severity of the cases is what makes it so bad," Ryan said. "The symptoms are severe and people are a threat not only to themselves, but to those around them."
The new drugs are easy to find. Merchants promote the drugs on the Internet, and some are available on the shelves of record stores and smoke shops. Authorities believe the drugs are often manufactured by rogue chemists in foreign countries.
Federal officials claim many of the new designer drugs are already illegal under existing laws. To strengthen the hands of police and prosecutors, lawmakers in Washington and many states are trying to combat the burgeoning crisis by banning specific substances in designer synthetics and their chemical cousins. In Minnesota, a new drug law with that purpose went into effect on July 1.
But few prosecutors have brought charges under the laws, which have yet to be fully tested in court.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a former Hennepin County attorney who is now sponsoring some of the federal legislation, called the growth of synthetics a "major shift" in the drug trade.
"I think it's only going to get worse if we don't start getting serious about enforcing these laws and giving the prosecutors and cops the tools that they need," Klobuchar said.
Federal agents who have devoted their careers to America's war on drugs are scrambling to find a way to fight a problem emerging with a different set of rules.
"We're going to be constantly having to deal with this issue of 'legal' stuff coming on the market," said Rusty Payne, a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) spokesman in Washington. "This is stuff that's dangerous."
A tiny package, bought online
More than a week before the deadly Oklahoma party this spring, college student Cody Weddle visited a little-known chemical website and placed an order, court documents allege. He and others had researched 2C-E, an investigator said. Internet posts describe it as a sensory-enhancing psychedelic similar to LSD. A user nicknamed "Easy Rider" told Web readers about her "joyful night" on 2C-E, which made her feel "very warm and happy" and "more in control of myself than the drunk people around me."
Weddle compared it to Ecstasy and bought one gram of the powder for $120, investigators say. He had it shipped to his parents' house. When the tiny package arrived 10 days later, court documents say, he met with friends and fellow university students Andrew Akerman and Anastasia "Stacy" Jewell, who were dating. The students mixed the powder into a one-liter bottle of water.
For Akerman and Jewell, at least, it wouldn't be their first bout with drugs. Both had been in trouble for marijuana before. A friend said Jewell had done Ecstasy several years earlier but hadn't used drugs for a while.
Oklahoma public records show no prior convictions for Weddle. His attorney, Rob Neal, recently described Weddle as a "very well-mannered young man" who worked nights in a doughnut shop.
Weddle took some of the tainted water with him when he left Jewell's house that day, court documents say, and she and Akerman kept the bulk of it in an Aquafina bottle. Weddle told investigators that Akerman and Jewell were going to take the bottle to a party outside Konawa that night.
Konawa, a poor rural community about 70 miles southeast of Oklahoma City, was Akerman's hometown. The tallest structure on the small town's main drag is the white steeple of the First Baptist Church, and, until recently, the sole restaurant was a Sonic drive-in.
Akerman was supposed to sell the tainted water for $1 a milliliter -- less than a thimble full -- and he and Weddle would split the profits, according to court records. They stood to make more than eight times what Weddle paid for it.
At some point in the day, someone took a red marker and scribbled the water bottle with a skull.
No dealer, just the Web
Finding instructions for mixing, making, dosing and ingesting synthetic drugs is simple on the Internet. Erowid.org, one popular website, suggests mixing psychoactive powders into liquid to make it easier to measure accurate doses without expensive scales.
The Internet is also a flourishing marketplace for potential users to buy designer synthetics. One of the most popular online merchants appears to be am-hi-co.com, a site that acknowledges some of its "potpourri blends, incense and collectors items" may not be legal in all countries. In June, an estimated 8,156 people visited the site, up from just 515 unique visitors two years ago, according to data analysis by Internet Exposure, a Web design and research firm hired by the Star Tribune. Several other sites selling synthetic drugs had similar growth.
Merchants are introducing new products online, too. When the DEA temporarily banned five chemicals used to make synthetic marijuana early this year, retailers started promoting new mixtures they claimed were not covered by any bans.
The market is too lucrative to disappear. Herbal incense, sometimes called synthetic marijuana, accounted for nearly $5 billion in sales last year, according to an estimate from the Retail Compliance Association, a national retailers group that formed to challenge herbal incense bans.
"Customers said right off, if you can't sell stuff, we're just going to go on the Internet," said Duluth retailer Jim Carlson, who rolled out new products that he claims are legal as soon as Minnesota's ban took effect. "Well, they don't tax the Internet. The city and state will lose their sales tax."
Danger, in just a few drops
The log ranch-style house outside Konawa was a great place for a party. People could hang out near the back-yard swimming pool, on the front porch or in the vast, concrete-floored living room. On May 6, about a dozen young adults gathered there to crank electronic music, play video games on big-screen TVs and drink a little beer. The host was 24-year-old Garrett Minitre, whose mom was away that Friday evening.
At some point, Akerman brought out the water bottle with the scribbled skull.
"It was just legal and we wanted to try something along that line, and we wouldn't get in trouble for it," Minitre said later.
Akerman, described by friends as gregarious and opinionated, collected cash and squirted the drug into people's mouths using a medicine dropper. Most bought 10 milliliter doses -- small enough to consume in a single swallow. Akerman and others at the party claimed the drug would make users hallucinate for four to five hours.
Josh Sharber, 20, hesitated at first. He had tried several drugs before -- pot, synthetic herbal incense and mushrooms, among others. Those seemed predictable. He had never heard of 2C-E.
It's legal, friends reassured him. Bought off the Internet.
It can't be that bad, Josh reasoned. He and his 19-year-old sister, Heather, both took some. So did six others.
The liquid went down like water. It left a bitter aftertaste.
'A new era'
With names like Ivory Wave, Bliss and Cloud 9, many designer synthetics are marketed to appear harmless.
But taking them can be a life-or-death gamble.
The new drugs lack regulatory oversight and quality control. Users often rely on each others' Internet postings to find out how much they should take and what they could experience.
Before the drugs showed up in the U.S., they were popular in Europe. After a rash of alarming incidents, authorities in several European countries banned the substances, some of which started as legitimate research chemicals but later became popular because of their psychoactive qualities.
Tracking the source of these drugs has been difficult, but authorities suspect many synthetics are produced in bulk quantities in such countries as China, Pakistan and India, according to the recent testimony of a top DEA official.
"Today, the marketing of such 'designer' drugs has ushered in a new era of drug distribution," Joseph Rannazzisi, deputy assistant administrator of the DEA's Office of Diversion Control, told members of Congress in April. "No longer are these substances sold in a covert manner to thwart law enforcement efforts. Instead, the substances are sold at retail outlets in plain view."
Many of the substances are so new to the market that they have little track record. What may give one user a euphoric high could permanently injure someone else. Erratic labeling means buyers sometimes wind up with vastly different chemicals than the ones they ordered.
Cody Wiberg, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy, said manufacturers don't know what's going to happen when they tweak chemicals. "They could produce something that kills people or that destroys some part of the brain that leaves somebody with a seizure disorder for the rest of their lives," he said.
'My friend is having a seizure'
Around midnight, less than an hour after swallowing the drugged water, some at the Konawa party started wondering what was wrong with their batch. Instead of feeling great, many felt nauseated.
Stacy Jewell lay sick in a bedroom. Others threw up on the lawn and in the living room. Everyone dripped with sweat.
Akerman kept handing out bottles of water, telling them to stay hydrated.
Josh Sharber gulped entire bottles and tried to walk off his nausea. Heather Sharber tried to sleep it off, but closing her eyes made the room spin, as if she were stuck on an endless carnival ride.
In the bedroom, Jewell started to lose consciousness. Somebody suggested calling an ambulance.
"My friend is having a seizure," the 911 caller said, a man wailing in the background. "She was spitting up blood."
The Sharbers stumbled toward their car, worried they would get in trouble. Heather Sharber climbed into the driver's seat and headed for home. Rolling down the curvy driveway, she saw trees leap in front of her car.
Down the road about a half-mile, she realized it was too dangerous to keep driving. She threw the car into park and slumped over the steering wheel. Josh Sharber got out and wound up face-down in a ditch 40 feet away. When an officer approached, he could only mumble that he was sorry: "I really messed up, and I just want to go to sleep."
A panicked race for help
Konawa ambulance medical technician Richard Morphis and his partner got to the house first and found several people staring blankly. They found Stacy Jewell unconscious in a little girl's pink bedroom.
She lay unresponsive, Morphis said, her breathing so slow and shallow they could barely measure it.
"Is she going to be all right?" a panicked partygoer kept asking them.
Morphis and his partner lifted her onto a stretcher and into the ambulance. Morphis inserted a breathing tube down her throat. The nearest hospital was about 15 minutes away.
They rushed down country highways, Morphis doing CPR, but it was too late. At age 22, Stacy Jewell -- who in recent years had tried to talk others out of doing drugs -- died after a drug overdose.
Kat Green worried that would be her son's fate, too. Waiting for more ambulances, she kept holding onto her son on the lawn. His cheeks were bloody with scratches from clawing at his own face. Colton tried to sit up, then fell over and seized, his muscles tensed so tight that Green thought his body would somehow break. She watched his lips turn blue.
"We need to get the ambulances here now!" she yelled to the other officers.
Within minutes, paramedics tugged at her shoulders, forcing Green to let go. They loaded Colton into an ambulance and poked him with IVs. Green saw blood streaking from his mouth.
Then he flat-lined.
"We're gonna have to bag this one," she heard a paramedic shout while grabbing a breathing pump.
Green sobbed. Other officers hugged her shoulders as paramedics transferred Colton into a medical helicopter.
"God, please let him make it," she thought. "This could be the last time I see him."
She watched the helicopter carrying her oldest son rise and disappear into the night.
'Not supposed to end this way'
For days afterward, Brenda Akerman sat by her only child in the intensive care unit, praying. She remembered his trips with the high school band, the birthday parties at their farm. She thought of his future; he was supposed to start a second summer internship maintaining computers at the accounting firm where she worked.
Now some drug she'd never heard of had put him in a coma, and he was showing no improvement.
She couldn't figure out why her son would try something so unknown. He had seen her react severely to over-the-counter allergy medicine. Their dachshund died from tainted dog food. He should have known better.
After a week of waiting, Oklahoma law dictated Andrew's life support be turned off. Brenda Akerman watched her 22-year-old son take his last breath.
"I kept praying for a miracle," she said. "It's not supposed to end this way."
Preliminary tests later revealed that the powder delivered to rural Oklahoma wasn't 2C-E at all, but a drug called Bromo-DragonFLY -- a chemical that some websites warn is even more dangerous.
The man accused of placing the Internet order, Cody Weddle, sits in jail charged with murder -- a charge that has drawn mixed feelings in town. Some residents think it is too harsh, that Weddle didn't intend to hurt anyone and those at the party freely chose to take the drug. Authorities continue to investigate others who were at the party.
Oklahoma prosecutors contend that distributing the drug was already illegal under a state law banning substances similar to illegal drugs. Weddle's attorney questions that premise.
Konawa Police Chief Rick Brogdon plans to send his 10 officers to training on synthetic drugs. Had they stopped Akerman going through town that night, he said, they wouldn't have known what he was carrying. "What else is out there we don't know about yet?" he said.
Stacy Jewell's mom, Lida Beckman, visits her daughter's grave often. Her daughter's friends decorated the casket with copies of Jewell's art. Beckman, who admits to doing drugs herself in the past, is angry that something so deadly was so easily available on a computer.
"It's easier to buy drugs than it is to buy alcohol," she said.
Kat Green is grateful her son survived. He was hospitalized for three days, and his hands still tingle with numbness. Doctors are concerned about his heart. He is reluctant to talk about it, even to his mother. He told her he wants to become a police officer.
Green is frustrated she can't do more to crack down on dangerous drugs that can be bought with the click of a computer mouse.
"It makes me so damn mad that it was so easy for them to get," she said.
She and other residents hope the tragedy will scare others from trying frightening new drugs.
"Every year from now on," Green said, "they're gonna remember when they put their friends in the ground because of this."
Staff writer Larry Oakes and staff researchers Sandy Date and John Wareham contributed to this report. Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102
Touted as a marijuana substitute; mixture of dried herbs sprayed with chemicals and sold as incense.
Sold as various products, including bath salts and plant food; can dangerously raise body temperature and cause renal failure.
Sold as research chemicals, these hallucinogens are similar to LSD; can cause paranoia and nausea.
Caused two deaths at an Oklahoma party this spring; powder hallucinogen with effects warned to be worse than 2C-E.
Cost: N/ASource: Star Tribune reporting