..Facts of Life
To the drug
dealers on the corner of 138th Street and Brook Avenue in the
South Bronx, it started like any other Friday night.
in, cut their deals, then wheeled out again — with glassine
bags of heroin in their pockets and attachés and furtive
looks over their shoulders.
things usually start — and end, except for the occasional rip-off
or gun fight, which can bring the heat and a temporary break
in the day-to-day trade that flourishes on the corner.
special was a new drug labelled, for no good reason, “Tango
& Cash,” after the movie cops played by Kurt Russell
and Sylvester Stallone.
brisk, as dealers made their scores and their way back home with
the weekend’s wares.
out of the ordinary. What was unusual became clear a few hours
later, when the first overdoses started turning up in emergency
rooms — and kept turning up. By weekend’s end, a dozen
were dead and 130 were hospitalized in three states as victims
of “Tango & Cash.”
victims realized it or not, they hadn’t overdosed on heroin at
all. They’d OD’ed on alpha-methylfentanyl, a drug that produces
a heroin-like high at a fraction of the dose.
All in all,
the weekend was only one episode involving “designer drugs”
— synthetic versions of illegal drugs cooked up in underground
labs and tested on unwitting human guinea pigs.
the results are harmless — and sometimes horrendous.
reason we put together this pamphlet. Because many designer drugs
are more dangerous than the drugs they imitate. And while “Tango
and Cash” wasn’t the first to hurt or kill people, it is
one more sign that designer drugs are a fact of life on the street
And for too
many people, they’re the final fact of life.
..So what are designer drugs?
versions of drugs that are designated controlled substances under
In fact, designer
drugs came about because of the laws that make drugs illegal
and restrict supply to users.
laws that make it tough to smuggle drugs from other countries
provide a big incentive to chemists who are able to create similar
drugs in the lab.
drugs included substitutes for heroin, amphetamines, and hallucinogens
— including the designer hallucinogen MDMA, and its chemical
..What’s ‘designer’ about them?
the drugs were designed to sidestep laws against controlled substances.
drugs came along, drug laws were specific: Heroin was on Schedule
I of the Controlled Substances Act; amphetamine on Schedule II,
Valium Schedule IV, and so on. In other words, substances had
to be explicitly banned by law, or they weren’t banned at all.
who originated designer drugs took advantage of this fact.
They knew that,
by switching base ingredients or otherwise tinkering with the
chemical structure of drugs in the lab, they could hatch up entirely
new chemicals, different enough from controlled substances that
they wouldn’t violate the law, yet close enough to produce many
of the same effects as the original.
the law? With designer drugs, getting busted was only a temporary
setback, and one that only lasted as long as it took to get analysis
results back from the crime lab.
..Are designer drugs still legal?
No. Under provisions
of the Controlled Substance Analog Act, the U.S. Drug Enforcement
Administration was granted powers that effectively allowed the
agency to outlaw every designer drug on the street.
And the law
didn’t stop with the designer drugs on the street in 1986, when
the law was passed.
It went further
than any drug law had ever gone before, banning all possible
variations on controlled substances — even those that hadn’t
been discovered yet.
The law triggered
a storm of protest — from legal chemists, who felt it restricted
their research, and from behavioral therapists who saw promise
in the then-legal designer stimulant MDMA (better known as “ecstasy”)
as a tool in therapy.
Still, it allowed
police to do what they hadn’t been able to do before: arrest
and prosecute designer drug makers and dealers.
Dozens of designer
analog chemicals have been banned under the law. Among them:
MDMA and two relatives, and 11 versions of synthetic heroin.
..Then why are designer drugs still around?
For a lot of
reasons, almost all of which revolve around money.
For one thing,
high-risk/high-profit street drugs like heroin have to be smuggled
into the country. Designer drugs are already here — or, at least,
they are as soon as they’re created.
many designer chemicals are easy to make. A makeshift “lab”
can be stowed in the back of a truck — or fitted out in a kitchen
and other ingredients are often available from legitimate chemical
supply houses, with few questions asked. Some chemists make their
simple supply-and-demand economics can push designer chemicals
onto the street drug marketplace, particularly when supply of
an old favorite is down and price is up.
Then they become
cheaper and on-the-street, magic words to an otherwise-uncomfortable
And that can
mean trouble. Because designer drugs can pose serious risks to
users — dangers linked as much to how the drugs are made as
how they’re used.
..What kinds of risks?
are as endless as the chemicals themselves.
center on the toxicity and instability of the base chemicals
— ingredients like phenylacetic acid, formaldehyde, carbamate,
acetic anhydride, and others. They can build to toxic levels
in rooms used as drug labs — if the room doesn’t blow up first.
are tied to the drug-making process and the skill — or lack
of skill — of the chemist.
A single slip
in the process of synthesizing some chemicals can poison the
final product — creating lead-tainted “crystal meth,”
for instance, or seizure-inducing forms of PCP.
even the chemist doesn’t know exactly what drug he’s created
until it’s been “tested” on real people — and confirmed
by medical examiners.
that took a wrong turn involved a problem that’s rampant in designer
drug labs: quality control.
In 1982, a
California chemist working on an analog of the narcotic Demerol®
took a shortcut that backfired. He probably didn’t even know
it and users certainly didn’t know about it until they shot up
— and short-circuited their nervous systems in the process.
And just like
the South Bronx episode we discussed earlier, users had no idea
they were safety-testing chemicals that would be more at home
in a toxic dump.
they were shooting “China white,” one of the most sought-after
forms of heroin on the street. What they were getting instead
was a brain-damaging drug called MPTP.
enough to buy and use it developed Parkinson’s disease — a nervous
system disorder that can paralyze its victims. In several cases,
users were found dead or paralyzed with needles still stuck in
And while MPTP
— and its analog, PEPAP — has pretty much vanished from street
trade in recent years, uncounted users tried it — and swore
by it — when it was around.
And their experience
— and the increased risk of Parkinson’s disease they carry —
points up the real risk today of drugs in general and designer
drugs in particular: Anything’s possible.
So where does
all this leave us?
In a strange,
freaky, dangerous place.
as drugs have always appealed to the side of human nature that
loves pleasure, drug dealing has always appealed to humans who
love money. And if history has taught us anything, it’s taught
us that people who love money will do almost anything to get
more of it.
And that brings
us to the last lesson to consider about designer drugs. It’s
not that they’re designed by evil monsters, just people trying
to make a quick buck. And people who try to make a quick buck
can make mistakes.
Don’t let them
experiment on you.
problem with people who make mistakes when they make drugs is
that the mistakes they make can make the people who take them
dead — or messed-up for a long, long time.
And if you
don’t believe us, ask one of the living statues who shot up MPTP.
And if you don’t believe them, ask somebody who knew somebody
who shot “Tango & Cash.”
..Sidebar | Designer
‘Heroin’: Deadly Double
most powerful painkillers ever discovered. But on the street,
they cause as much pain as they take away. Meet the Fentanyls
— a group of “designer” narcotic analogs that look
and act like heroin, but which can be hundreds — or thousands
— of times stronger.
be dangerous — and deadly — on a couple of different levels
at the same time. Here are just a few:
Effects are near-identical to
heroin (the drugs even block heroin withdrawal symptoms), but
last only 1-2 hours.
An active dose of fentanyl — about 100 micrograms — weighs
about 1/600th of a postage stamp. Just a few crystals more can
trigger overdose — or death. Their extreme potency makes it
practically impossible to “cut” the drugs to a safe
All fentanyls interfere with breathing and can “freeze”
chest muscles. Respiratory-depressant effects last hours longer
than the buzz, so users risk overdose every time they re-dose,
chasing the short-lived fentanyl high.
problem: There’s no easy way to tell fentanyls from heroin. Some
users report that the analogs don’t leave the same bitter tang
on the tongue as heroin, and that the rush is milder and the
comedown easier. And since fentanyls dissolve easily in water,
they don’t have to be cooked.
Luckily, when it comes to overdose
(and it often does), differences disappear: Fentanyl and its
analogs respond quickly to naloxone (Narcan®) just like heroin
and other narcotics — if someone happens to notice (and act)