Synthetic drugs an elusive and deadly foe

The drug that killed a 17-year-old girl is among newest and deadliest.

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Tara Fitzgerald

The drug that killed a Woodbury teenager is one of the latest to hit the underground market in Minnesota, and also one of the most troublesome. Known as 25i-NBOMe, it’s a synthetic compound intended to mimic the hallucinatory effects of LSD that is viewed as a gateway drug to heroin and can be deadly.

Tara Fitzgerald, 17, died Jan. 11 just hours after ingesting a tablet containing the drug, which was given to her and a girlfriend by another teenager.

The compound and other synthetics are fairly new to Minnesota, and both the amount of the drugs and the number of related overdoses have increased exponentially in the state, law enforcement sources say.

In 2012, the 22 regional drug enforcement task forces that operate in Minnesota confiscated 4,648 grams of synthetic drugs. In 2013, they seized 1,017,252 grams.

“That’s severe,” said Brian Marquart, statewide drug and gang coordinator with the state Department of Public Safety. Those numbers don’t include synthetic drugs confiscated by federal or local law enforcement agencies, which are seeing a similar trend, he said.

No area is being spared, Marquart said, with the drugs surfacing in inner cities, rural areas and winding suburban streets, like the one where Fitzgerald, a Woodbury High School honor student, died.

Five teenagers were charged Wednesday with third-degree murder in connection with the sale and distribution of the controlled substance that led to Fitzgerald’s death: Sydney Claire Johnson, Alistair Curtis Berg and Brian Phillip Norlander, all 17 and of Woodbury; Cole Alexander Matenaer, 19, also of Woodbury, and Alexander Lee Claussen, 19, of St. Cloud.

The 17-year-olds will be certified as adults in court. Johnson, Berg and Norlander also face a second felony charge — sale of dangerous drugs to someone under 18.

Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said earlier this week that the charges, which stemmed from tracing the drugs “up the distribution chain,” should send notice to drug dealers everywhere.

Orput, Marquart and other law enforcement officials said young people and their parents should understand the unique perils posed by synthetic drugs, which have recently claimed several lives in Minnesota. They include:

• Louis N. Folson-Hart, 22, of Mankato, and Chloe L. Moses, 17, who died in March from a synthetic drug called 2-C. cq

• Christian Bjerk, 18, of Grand Forks, N.D., and Elijah R. Stai, 17, of Park Rapids, Minn., who died in 2012 from overdoses of 2CI-NBOMe. cq

• Trevor Robinson, 19, who died three years ago after snorting, along with 10 other teens or young adults, 2C-E cq in Blaine

“I think with … synthetic drugs, this new generation of young people needs to know this stuff can kill you,” said Carol Falkowski, an epidemiology specialist and CEO of Drug Abuse Dialogues in St. Paul.

Even an amount that fits on the head of a pin can trigger an overdose death, Falkowski said, and there’s no way for a buyer to know its potency.

“It’s really a game of Russian roulette,” she said.

‘Whac-A-Mole’

Synthetic drugs pose a challenge because new variations of compounds — an average of two per month, by Drug Enforcement Agency estimates — are constantly emerging and the market has proliferated through social media, Falkowski said.

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