Synthetic drugs are widely sold as bath salts and incense. But lab tests reveal substances that can kill.
The ad for the powerful hallucinogenic drug emerged on a foreign website in June, billed as a "research chemical" with the strange name 4-Meo-PCP.
All it took to order a gram of it was a credit card. The website didn't demand proof of any buyer's age or research credentials -- even as it warned shoppers that "this product requires extra caution when used for scientific research."
Nine days later, a small pouch arrived from England. The customs description said "eyelashes."
Something quite different was inside: methoxy phencyclidine, a chemical cousin of PCP, or angel dust, which became infamous in the 1970s for turning some users into violent psychotics.
Similar transactions are occurring with alarming frequency around the country as the recreational use of synthetic drugs explodes in popularity. Over the past year, the products have been linked to or suspected in more than 20 deaths nationally, including two in Minnesota. They are also prompting thousands of calls to poison control centers.
But obtaining dangerous, even deadly synthetic drugs has become as simple as ordering books or movies online. Anyone with a computer and credit card can shop websites that peddle drugs innocuously described as bath salts, herbal incense, plant food and research chemicals.
To determine just how dangerous these substances are, the Star Tribune notified federal law enforcement authorities and bought an array of synthetic drugs -- 30 in all -- from dealers in the United States and overseas earlier this year. The Star Tribune also paid to have the drugs tested by MedTox Laboratories in New Brighton.
Most of the substances were mislabeled, the investigation showed, with packages that did not disclose their chemical content. Some items came with deliberately misleading instructions on how they should be used.
The laboratory test results disturbed several drug experts who reviewed the findings for the newspaper. The packages contained an array of psychoactive stimulants, hallucinogens and cannabinoids. Also troubling: Concentration levels varied so much that a dose of one was many times more potent than the same dose of another -- even when the products carried the same name, the experts said.
Such variations in content and purity make the drugs dangerously unpredictable and greatly increase the chance of dying from an accidental overdose, the experts said.
"Anyone who uses products like this might as well be playing Russian roulette," said Cody Wiberg, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy.
"These are hard drugs in pretty packages that produce effects similar to LSD and methamphetamine," said David Ferguson, a professor of medicinal chemistry at the University of Minnesota. "At best, users are guessing at dose and have no idea what is actually in the package. The potential for an overdose is high."
Web of dealers
Minnesota and at least 30 other states have outlawed many synthetic drugs. Minnesota's ban took effect on July 1, but several retailers in the state continue to sell chemical compounds that they claim are not covered by the ban.
The products are also widely available on the Internet.
At Amazon.com, the Star Tribune bought a packet of "Purple Diesel Spice." Tests confirmed that the "exotic potpourri blend" was sprayed with JWH-122, a chemical synthesized to interact with the same brain receptors as THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.
Legalsalts.com sold the newspaper White Rush, an "invigorating bath salt" that turned out to be 36% MDPV, a psychostimulant.
Naughtyplantfood.com, a British site, mailed the paper "Charly Sheen," a "research chemical powder" that turned out to be a mix of lidocaine and MDAI, a mimic of the rave drug Ecstasy.
The products ranged in price from $7.99 for a gram of synthetic pot to $58.15 for the 4-Meo-PCP. The newspaper wired $110 to a company in Portugal more than two months ago for a research chemical that was never shipped. The company did not respond to inquiries.
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) spokesman Rusty Payne said it is a felony to buy 4-Meo-PCP and possibly some of the other substances. But he said it is "ridiculous" to expect the federal government to stop trafficking of all synthetic drugs.
"There are thousands and thousands of websites who market these products, and it is extremely difficult to police and enforce every single one of them," Payne said.
Of the nine products bought by the newspaper after July 1, all violate state or federal laws, according to the pharmacy board's Wiberg, who helped draft Minnesota's ban.
But Wiberg said most of the other 21 products could also be considered illegal. Many contained chemical "analogs" that mimic the effect of illicit substances such as cocaine, marijuana and LSD, which is illegal if the products are intended, implicitly or explicitly, for human consumption. Other items contained chemicals that had already been banned by federal authorities or illegally failed to list key inredients.
Two of the so-called bath salts were found to contain all or mostly caffeine. But even those items, Wiberg said, might be considered illegal because manufacturers failed to disclose the amount of caffeine, which can be toxic at high doses.
Gregory Janis, scientific director at MedTox, said the research shows that illicit drug suppliers feel free to offer up almost any substance not specifically outlawed by the government.
"A large, cynical conclusion which can be formed from your sampling is that the federal drug analog act is of little value," Janis said.
Labels that lie
Just half of the products purchased by the Star Tribune listed any ingredients, and all but two of those items left out the psychoactive chemical or chemicals that make them dangerous.
For example, a white foil packet of Cloud 9 bath salt described its contents as a "proprietary blend of concentrated water softening agents, Epsom salts, sodium chloride, amino acid blends, and naturally occurring trace elements and minerals."
MedTox found none of those things. Instead, it concluded that the powder was 100 percent 3,4 dimethylmethcathinone, a psychostimulant that could quickly wreak havoc in a user's brain at that concentration.
Eight of the 30 products the Star Tribune purchased contained lidocaine, an anesthetic often used to numb tissue during surgery. The drug is also used to cut and boost street drugs like cocaine. None of the items disclosed the presence of lidocaine, a violation of laws against misbranding.
Prescription products with lidocaine typically contain 1 to 5 percent of the compound, but one of the bath salts turned out to be 72 percent lidocaine.
"That some of these products contain lidocaine is extremely worrisome," Wiberg said. "An overdose of lidocaine can easily kill the user."
Users are given few meaningful directions. One package simply advised buyers to "use sparingly." A "plant food" came with this suggestion: "Add 1 gram to your watering can. ... One can will cover 2-6 adult plants."
Challenging the ban
Manufacturers attempt to avoid responsibility for illegal use of their products by stamping them with warnings such as "not for human consumption." But such warnings are nothing more than a legal dodge, acknowledged Jim Carlson, a Duluth head shop owner and one of several retailers statewide challenging Minnesota's synthetic drug ban in court.
"If I get up and swear this stuff is incense ... how can a judge not look at me and say, 'What a bullshitter,'" Carlson said. "And [my attorneys] say, 'You gotta quit thinking like that. You sell this product as incense. ... That's the only reason you can sell it.' "
The hazardous nature of the drugs and their wild swings in potency make taking them a chemical crapshoot, experts said.
Of the 12 bath salts tested for the Star Tribune, nine contained methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), a potent stimulant that is not approved for medical use in the United States and was first seized by legal authorities in Germany in 2007, according to the DEA.
Concentration levels varied from 2 percent to 36 percent. Two packages of a synthetic drug called Vanilla Sky sold at the same time by the same retailer packed vastly different wallops -- one had twice as much MDPV as the other.
Ferguson, who teaches a popular course called "Drugs of Abuse" at the U of M, said MDPV and other stimulants found in the bath salts provide a rush similar to cocaine or methamphetamine. They are from the cathinone family of drugs. Cathinone compounds are addictive, and chronic use can cause psychosis, aggression and other problems.
At lower doses, users are most likely full of empathy and confidence, Ferguson said. But when they take too much, the brain's receptors get overloaded, he said. The heart races, and blood pressure spikes. Severe allergic reactions can occur, impairing breathing.
Delirium can set in, as well as confusion, hallucinations, hysteria and panic. The end result, Ferguson said, can be heart attack or respiratory failure.
The newspaper tested 10 types of synthetic pot, usually sold as "herbal incense." Makers typically spray chemicals onto dried herbs that users can then smoke.
Each of the synthetic pot packages contained chemicals that activate the same brain receptors as marijuana does. The chemicals were first synthesized by Clemson University Prof. John W. Huffman as part of federally funded research into the role those receptors play in regulating appetite, nausea, mood, pain and inflammation. The chemicals, such as JWH-122, carry his initials.
Powerful and frightening
Huffman has called people "idiots" for ingesting the stuff.
"Their effects in humans have not been studied, and they could very well have toxic effects," he said in a recent interview. "They absolutely should not be used as recreational drugs."
Ferguson said the most harmful drug tested for the Star Tribune was 4-Meo-PCP, the chemical analog of angel dust.
In his class at the university, Ferguson demonstrates the frightening power of the drug by showing a video clip of a young man who took PCP and climbed an electric transmission tower.
"Everybody is yelling at him and chasing him," Ferguson said. "He climbs up and he grabs onto the electric wires. And he literally -- it's like a Looney Tune cartoon -- he lights up white, and you can see his outline, and then he's gone."
Staff writers Pam Louwagie and James Walsh contributed to this report. Larry Oakes • 612-673-1751