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.
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.
“It’s really like a game of Whac-A-Mole to stay ahead of the curve with these different chemical compounds and the Internet market,” she said.
Marquart said that buyers can be lulled into thinking that synthetic drugs are not as harmful as other drugs.
“Even the wholesale sellers don’t know what’s in it,” he said.
The teenagers charged in Fitzgerald’s death thought they were buying LSD, because the drug was marketed that way, said Lee Vague, Woodbury’s director of public safety.
“There’s no way you can buy something and know what it is … and know what the effects are going to be and this is a tragic example of that,” he said. “Depending on the chemist, they’re coming up with different versions and formulas really often. It changes rapidly and it depends on who’s manufacturing it and who’s making it.”
Synthetic drugmakers are adept at creating compounds that mimic street drugs, and can be sold in retail stores. “Almost as fast as the laws change, the things in the drugs change,” said Eric Grunwald, a forensic scientist with the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.
State Rep. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, was chairman of a special legislative panel that compiled a 211-page report this year on the synthetic drug problem in Minnesota. He’s also an assistant fire chief and emergency medical technician who’s seen firsthand the effects of synthetic drug overdoses on young people who didn’t know what they had taken.
In Duluth, at one trauma center alone, there were 75 synthetic drug overdose cases in a recent 12-month period. About a quarter ended up being admitted to the ICU, and 16 percent ended up in the psychological care unit. The total costs for treating those 75 people amounted to about $425,000.
The legislative panel pushed for two new laws targeting synthetic drugs, Simonson said. One creates an educational campaign addressing the dangers of synthetic drugs in middle and high schools and will begin next year. The other gives officials greater authority to halt the sales of synthetic drugs in retail businesses.
Controlling Internet sales is another matter, Simonson said.
“That’s the million-dollar question, right? If we could somehow control that, we could really put a dent in this,” he said.
Added Vague, addressing Fitzgerald’s death: “My hope would be that this gets people’s attention and this tragedy creates an opportunity for some courageous conversations between kids and their parents.”