Synthetic drugs: deadly and in demand

Barb Sweet
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Crystal meth


The rise in popularity of synthetic drugs in the province is the top concern for an RCMP officer tasked with drug and organized crime awareness.

And those drugs include a variety of the highly addictive substance known as bath salts.

“Absolutely, because there is not enough known about some of them,” said Sgt. Stephen Conohan, the RCMP provincial co-ordinator for drugs and organized crime awareness, and the lead instructor on clandestine drug labs.

“Minute quantities can cause very adverse reactions.”

Conohan speculates they are popular because they can slip past workplace drug tests.

“A lot of these can’t be detected unless specifically testing for them,” he said.

“The fact that there might be a lot of people working in industries where there is urine testing might be a motivator for bringing in more synthetics. There has to be a reason that all these synthetics are showing up.”

The synthetics, as well as the additives included in cocaine to stretch distributers’ profits, are contributing — along with the rest of the illegal drug trade — to apprehension about what 2013 will bring.

Recently The Telegram reported that 2012 was the deadliest year yet for overdose deaths in this province, based on numbers supplied by chief medical examiner

Dr. Simon Avis.

There were 13 known drug overdose deaths in 2012, the highest number ever in a single year.

As the toll on drug users escalates, so has drug-related crime.

The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary said this week it believes a drive-by shooting in a St. John’s subdivision, which targeted the wrong house, is connected to a suspicious firebombing and the local drug trade.

Early on May 31, a fire on Hamilton Avenue damaged two homes, as well as a Mercedes-Benz and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle parked in the driveway.

Late that night, two homes and three vehicles on Dauntless Street in Kenmount Terrace were damaged during a drive-by shooting involving an assault rifle believed to be an AK-47. The home’s occupants are not involved in the drug trade and the assailants apparently went to the wrong address in their attempt to retaliate.

RNC Chief Bob Johnston told reporters this week that investigators have learned the two incidents may be linked to the Hells Angels.

Conohan wasn’t involved in those cases.

But he said it underscores the importance of his and other drug awareness officers’ jobs even more.

“Profit drives business and greed. Any time we are undergoing a huge amount of economic prosperity, organized crime will seek to take their chunk of the pie,” Conohan told The Telegram.

“It lights a little fire under me to say we need to talk about it. We need to have that open discourse. Any opportunity I get with parents, I take,” said Conohan, whose has trained police officers and chemists internationally about clandestine drug labs.

It’s not the drugs of many parents’ youth — marijuana and such — but rather the deadly chemicals and substances that are being added to drugs that Conohan warns about.

As he talked to The Telegram, he worked his way around a table full of everything from batteries to camp fuel, antifreeze and drain cleaner that are used in clandestine labs to make drugs.

The display included a container of one end product — crystal meth — which looks and feels like rock salt.

One of the chemicals used in meth production is achieved by soaking such items as road flares, marine flares, matchbook covers and acetone.

Some of the drugs Conohan displayed are technically legal, like the hallucinogenic salvia, a herbal type of drug from the mint family which people order over the Internet, and another ethnobotanical such as kratom, but Conohan contends they are not safe.

Several plastic containers contain variations of synthetic drugs in white powder form.

Conohan placed question marks on those containers because customers don’t know they are also getting such potentially dangerous ingredients as anti-parasitics intended for livestock.

And cocaine, he said, is being cut with a deworming agent intended for pigs and cows that, if ingested in humans, can attack white blood cells and possibly compromise the immune system.

According to Conohan, coke is also being cut with the banned carcinogenic analgesic painkiller Phenacetin, which affects the bladder, kidneys and liver.

“The point I am trying to highlight is you can see plainly all these drugs in purest form come as white powder. If someone offers you a hit of something, how is it you know what it is?” he asked.

“There is not enough known about some of them. … Some of our typical medical interventions will not work for people under the influence.”

The challenge is keeping up with the methods of illicit drug manufacturers, who continuously change the molecular structures of synthetics to try to keep ahead of government agencies’ controlled substances listings.

“It’s evolving more quickly than I would like it to,” he said.

 Conohan said some drugs, such as ecstasy, are actually being counterfeited. And that goes for a certain prescription drug, too.

What was being sold as OxyContin turned out to be Fentanyl, an opiate 50-100 times as powerful as morphine. They are faked right down to the Oxy inscription.

OxyContin was discontinued in favour of a harder-to-crush OxyNeo, but the generic version of the original drug can be prescribed in Canada. Conohan hasn’t heard any reports of the generic showing up on the streets.

Some of the drugs that police have encountered, he said, include:

• Benzylpiperazine (BZP) — street name Euphoria, and trifluoromethylphenylpiperazine (TFMPP), designed as anti-parasitic drugs for livestock used primarily to get rid of fleas and ticks in sheep herds. Now illegal under the Controlled Drug and Substances Act (CDSA). Both are being sold as ecstasy and the largest seizure in Atlantic Canada was made in Newfoundland and Labrador, 15,000 tablets.

“As a matter of fact, 84 per cent of pills being sold as ecstasy in this province have no (methylenedioxy-methamphetamine) in them at all,” Conohan said.

“Approximately three years ago, we started seeing pills that are 100 per cent meth with no ecstasy, and they are being sold as meth pills on the street for as little as $5-7.”

• Ketamine — Special K, Vitamin K, Gamma Hydroxy Butyrate or hydroxy butanoic acid, known as Grievous Bodily Harm, G, Goop, and otherwise infamously known as the date rape drug.

 • The 2C group of synthetic drugs — 2C-B, known on the streets as Nexxus or Venus. Usually sold in tablet form, they mimic LSD effects. 2C-B BromoDragonfly — known on the streets as Dragonfly or 2C-B Fly, sold mostly in powder form. 2C-E — being sold as ecstasy, it mimics the effects of bath salts. 2C-I — 600 hits were recently seized in liquid form placed on blotter paper and sold as LSD.

• Bath salts — mephedrone-methylmethcathinone, known on the streets as Meph, drone, Mcat or Meow Meow, or methedrone (used as a plant fertilizer); methylone which is sometimes referred to as super ecstasy; methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV).

The largest seizure of bath salts in the Atlantic Region was in Newfoundland and Labrador until a recent seizure eclipsed it in Nova Scotia, Conohan said.

Organizations: RCMP, The Telegram, Mercedes-Benz Harley-Davidson Oxy

Geographic location: Hamilton Avenue, Dauntless Street, Kenmount Terrace Atlantic Canada Newfoundland and Labrador Atlantic Region Nova Scotia

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Recent comments

  • John Public
    June 24, 2013 - 11:39

    What is with the misinformation on Kratom? Its a tree that has been used for mild sedative effects for millenia. There are no risks associated with Kratom, while the RCMP drugs officer depends on ever-increasing criminality for a job. Please do not include Kratom with garbage that will kill you like bath salts or ice, thanks.

  • Robbie
    June 08, 2013 - 16:03

    We cannot afford to not pay attention to drugs and drug-related crime anymore. To anybody paying attention, it is clear that our zero tolerance policy is not working, that prohibition in many cases does more harm than good. When we have black markets supplying unsafe, dangerous, made-at-home synthetic drugs on the street, and people suffering from addictions to drugs most people have never heard of, it may be time to consider thinking of a new way to handle the drug problem in the 21st century, instead of relying on failed, 20th century moralist rhetoric. If marijuana were decriminalized and regulated, for instance, we wouldn't be wasting our time busting people for this harmless drug, and we wouldn't be allowing the black market to make money from selling it. Essentially, by ignoring escalating drug problems we're funding the violence that occurs in our communities. Just like prohibition of alcohol in 1920s U.S., gangs, black markets, and violence emerged to fill a market demand for the drug alcohol. The same thing is happening now. We need to be smarter about how we handle these drug problems! No person who is addicted to a drug will recover in prison, prison will only stigmatize them for life leaving no other option but future criminal activity to survive. We need to be able to able to help those in our community who suffer from substance abuse, we need more rehabilitation clinics to help them overcome their addictions. How long before we realize that the drug-related problems we face, that the country faces, are not only crimina issues, but health issues as well? Eventually that will become necessary, the cost of enforcing prohibitionist measures will become too great to justify our stupid, archaic, and ineffective drug policies, an we will have to make progressive changes in how we handle these issues, like other countries have had to, like Argentina. Come on people, we need this to change.

  • Julie
    June 08, 2013 - 14:59

    Kratom is dangerous? In what way is kratom dangerous? There are 0 deaths from kratom overdoses. Yes, you read that right, ZERO.

  • doug
    June 08, 2013 - 12:02

    Good article, so what are the law enforcement officials going to do about it?, I will answer my own question, they will do little to nothing about it. The war on drugs is equivalent to emptying the Atlantic ocean with a teaspoon, they confiscate about 0.0001 % of illegal drugs that are out there. So you have to ask yourself, do we fight a losing battle?, or do we address the events which cause people to become a hard drug user?.

  • JMPA
    June 08, 2013 - 10:29

    Wow this is scary. Its time for RNC, RCMP & Marine Atlantic to combine forces and set up a security system at its Ferry Terminals in North Sydney.....there is no screening of any kind, dealers have an open opportunity to smuggle whatever they want onto the Island. Why hasn't something been done about this before. Time for change to happen to deter criminals, and perhaps save some of the youth getting drawn into this.

  • carogers
    June 08, 2013 - 08:39

    I knew there was a drug problem but I had no idea we were tittering upon the edge of total chaos.