Synthetic drugs: deadly and in demand

Barb Sweet
Published on June 8, 2013
Crystal meth
photo by Joe Gibbons


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.