Houston area 'major player' in synthetic drug market

By Robert Arnold - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - From ever changing chemical compounds to backroom labs, so-called "designer" drugs are popping up all over the Houston area. In fact, state records show the Houston area is the No. 1 spot in Texas when it comes to people getting poisoned by synthetic compounds designed to mimic the effects of marijuana and methamphetamines.

"Just a happy normal boy," is how Sandy Smith described her 14-year-old son. "Hangs out with the same group of kids, rides their skate boards around the neighborhoods, plays in the water or at the lake."

Smith said she and her husband always warned their son about the dangers of drugs, but a phone call last month from paramedics showed the family a suspected new drug had emerged.

"I mean, I got there and I can tell you I almost had a nervous breakdown," said Smith. "His blood pressure was so low he could hardly sit up. He was violently vomiting."

When Smith and her husband raced to their son's side, she said they found paramedics concerned that the teen's blood pressure was so low that he may begin experiencing seizures. Smith said no one could understand why the boy was so sick until his friend showed paramedics a small packet.

"When the paramedics saw the packet they said, 'No wonder why he was so violently ill,'" said Smith.

The packet contained a product police believe is a synthetic form of marijuana.

"I wanted to choke him and say, 'What's wrong with you?' What were you thinking?'" said Smith.

Fortunately, Smith's son recovered, but what happened to the teen is far from uncommon. According to records obtained from the State Department of Health and Human Services, there have been 318 reported poisonings in Harris County from synthetic drugs over the last two years. Records show that is the highest number in the state and a number higher than that of reported poisonings in the Dallas and Fort Worth areas combined. State records also showed nearly half of reported poisonings in the state involve people under the age of 20. These numbers are compiled from calls to Texas Poison Control centers, and investigators believe the numbers may be higher because calls to poison control are not mandatory.

"Houston is a major player for individuals distributing across the state," said an undercover detective with the Houston Police Department.

This detective said, despite state and federal bans on synthetic drugs, the Houston area is awash in products sold in brightly colored packets at convenience stores and smoke shops. The HPD detective showed Local 2 Investigates pictures from a recent seizure of 75,000 packets stashed in a storage facility. Investigators said the synthetic drugs come in a variety of brand names and can be labeled as potpourri, plant food, cellphone cleaner and even as "Scooby Snacks." 

Last week, Local 2 Investigates was there as Drug Enforcement Administration agents raided a warehouse in Rosenberg. Agents seized 250,000 packets. Special Agent-in-Charge of the Drug Enforcement Agency's Houston division, Javier Pena, said the packets were ready to be shipped and are worth millions of dollars on the street. Pena said his agents also seized chemicals and plant stock needed to make the synthetic drugs.

"This is an actual manufacturing, distribution laboratory," said Pena.

Beyond this raid, investigators said they have found other labs set up in storage facilities around the Houston area. Investigators said anyone with a basic degree in chemistry and access to the Internet can find everything they need to make these products.

"You can order these products from overseas for pennies on the dollar," said the HPD detective.

Recent state and federal crackdowns seem to be getting synthetic drugs off store shelves, but a check by Local 2 Investigates found these products are easily found for sale online. In the case of Smith's son, the packet found with the teen came pre-printed with the boast that it was the No. 1 seller on eBay.

"How dare them get rich off and make money off my child's life," said Smith.

Smith also lamented that she didn't know synthetic drugs existed and therefore didn't warn her son like she has with other drugs.

"It doesn't matter where you live, what subdivision you live in, what city you live in, it can happen anywhere," said Smith.

Investigators said these synthetic drugs were originally legal and many kids haven't gotten the word that these substances are now illegal.

"They think because a couple years ago it was legal, you can still get it at a convenience store, buy it, so it's fine," said the HPD detective.

The state and federal ban doesn't yet seem to be slowing the production of synthetic drugs. Officials at the Harris County Institute for Forensic Science said they have actually seen a spike in these drugs since Texas' law went into effect last September.

"In the past, I would say three to four months, we're seeing a new compound every week," said Kay McClain, a forensic chemist with the Institute.

"They're becoming extremely potent and just very bizarre," said Jeff Walterscheid, a forensic toxicologist with the Institute.

Both McClain and Walterscheid said those producing synthetic drugs began changing the chemical compounds to try to get around the law. Officials at the Institute said the chemical compounds they've seen can be 10 to 1,000 times more potent than the drugs the products are designed to mimic, which makes the effects on the human body wildly unpredictable.

"They really don't know what they're getting it when they use it," said McClain.

Officials at the Institute were instrumental in getting Texas legislators to craft and pass a law so broad that it made any compound that mimics an illegal drug also illegal. This way simply changing the chemical makeup of a drug doesn't make it legal.

Since 2011, the Institute reported finding synthetic drugs in the system of at least 10 people who've died. That does not automatically mean it caused the person's death. However, officials at the Institute said the prevalence of these synthetic drugs has gotten to the point where it is now routine to check for these drugs when a blood sample from a suspected drunken driver is submitted for testing.

"We thought this is really important. We need to look for it all the time," said Walterscheid.

In addition to testing a person's blood, the Institute has also been at the forefront in helping investigators identify different synthetic drugs. Since 2011, workers at the Institute have tested synthetic drugs in 274 individual cases brought in by police.

If you suspect someone has been poisoned by a synthetic drug you are urged to call police and report the case to the Texas Poison Center Network at 800-222-1222.

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