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Nancy Barnes: The perils of drug use in the Internet age

  • Article by: NANCY BARNES
  • Star Tribune Editor
  • July 24, 2011 - 6:20 AM

The story that broke one afternoon in mid-March was startling, even to editors who have been around for a while.

A 19-year-old man had died and 10 others were sickened in a mass overdose after experimenting with a synthetic drug during a party in Blaine.

We have written before about the problems of designer synthetic drugs, which are molecularly different from illegal drugs and sometimes can be acquired legally in shops or over the Internet. But this was the first time we had seen such deadly ramifications. After covering the case in Blaine, which resulted in one man being charged with third-degree murder, we set out to discover just how big a problem these drugs are posing in society. Our preliminary research revealed that this was a growing problem nationally, with devastating consequences across the country.

In the months since, we have researched or acquired dozens of these synthetic drugs, to discover how easy they are to buy and whether consumers are given any warnings at all when they buy the drugs.

We have talked to users, victims and witnesses across the country about some of the unintended consequences of ingesting synthetic drugs. And we have enlisted a number of experts, researchers and businesses in the greater Twin Cities community to help us identify what exactly is in the most common compounds so we can pinpoint the true risk to consumers. For example, Internet Exposure, a web development and marketing firm, is conducting research for us on how people are using the Internet to research and buy drugs, while MedTox Laboratories in St. Paul is testing chemicals for us.

The results of our investigation will unfold in stories that we will publish over the next few months, with the first appearing online today. It is a tragic story of a party that went wrong in a small town in Oklahoma, with eerie similarities to the party in Blaine earlier this year. We went to Oklahoma to illustrate that if synthetic drugs are a problem in such a small, tight-knit community like Konawa, they can create trouble anywhere in Middle America.

Police officer Kat Green, who arrives at the party in Oklahoma to find her own son nearly incapacitated, repeatedly wonders why her son would put something in his body without knowing exactly what it was.

Why indeed, would anyone?

The answer to that question seems to be that these partygoers are taking synthetic drugs because they think it will be fun, the drugs are often touted as legal, and the drugs are easily acquired, making them seem less dangerous than illegal drugs like marijuana, cocaine or hallucinogens. (Some people also take synthetic drugs because they may not show up on drug tests. )

Pamela Louwagie, who has been one of the primary reporters on this investigation, said that some of the partygoers in both Blaine and Oklahoma had researched the drugs they thought they were acquiring, while others "simply seemed to trust that their friends had done enough research to be safe.

"It was striking that, in each case, they didn't get what was ordered," Louwagie said. "That showcases the true danger in these things. Many of these substances, while they have been around ... for a while, are truly untested. And if you buy them, you don't know what they have been mixed with and, in some cases, whether you're even getting the right thing."

What's also striking is the trust buyers put in the notion that it is safe to acquire a synthetic drug over the Internet, from an unproven source.

We hope that when we have finished our investigation, we will have helped parents, teenagers and other adults truly understand the risk that synthetic drugs pose -- as well as the dangers of buying substances from some unknown source somewhere around the globe who just happens to advertise on the Internet.

I'll be sharing this story with my own daughters; I urge others to share it with friends and family as well.

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