Special Report: Deadly Synthetic Recipe

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MCALLEN – It’s hard to detect, a deadly recipe in the Rio Grande Valley. More families impacted by synthetic drugs. Users are living through the pain. Loved ones struggle to figure out why.

Insect killer, rat poison and stove cleaner are some of the ingredients added to incense to make synthetic drugs. It’s far from natural. It’s chemically destructive. It costs money and most importantly lives.

In your home, under the sink, household items are used to make a toxic habit.

“I don’t want a family member to go through what my family is going through,” said Rosalie Tristan.

It’s not the marijuana we all know. “We call it poison,” she said.

It’s not for human consumption. Some disregard the label. That’s what Tristan is afraid of.

“Our family discovered that he is creating his own synthetic marijuana,” she said.

Her 15-year-old step-brother is using synthetics.

“He’s pulling out from the cabinet; trying to mix and selling them,” said Tristan.

Her father, Abel Contreras, says his son dropped out of high school.

“Well, he mixes the synthetic. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know what kind of marijuana he uses. I don’t know what kind of mixture he makes. He does it by himself,” said Contreras.

Tristan’s a family member. She’s also part of a coalition against drugs. Now, synthetic drugs are her next fight.

“That’s in the streets right now harming our youth and our adults,” said Tristan.

It looks like tobacco; it’s often called synthetic marijuana. Tristan says the name is a misconception.

Marijuana is not used in this drug. The word "marijuana" is only used to give the perception that it has the same effect.

“It could be cleaners from the home, you’re over cleaner,” said Tristan.

It has ingredients that shouldn’t be mixed. Synthetic cannabinoids, as they are called, come in packets. Disney characters, Versace and Pokémon printed on the packaging make the drug seem harmless.

“I just felt my whole body becoming numb,” said a man.

This man only used synthetic once; we’ll call him “Joseph.”

“I was tricked to it. I thought I was smoking tobacco,” said Joseph.

Memory loss, kidney failure, hallucinations and paranoia are some of its symptoms. Joseph isn’t the only one.

Palmview police seized packets last December. Packets like Tristan described her brother mixes up on his own.

“With synthetics, the people actually stay in their high and you know they don’t come back,” said Arnold Sepulveda with Palmview police.

It just takes a small amount of the wrong mixture to end in death.

“I would say it’s a pretty big deal considering that because of the packaging of other items out there that are similar in packaging, the youth thinks they can hide it better,” said Sepulveda.

Palmview police say they’re seeing more of the synthetic substance on the streets.

“Personally, I have about five to 10 cases, it varies. Some months it’s more, some months it’s less. It depends,” said attorney Chris Cavazos.

Synthetics also produce a backlog in the court system.

“It could put pressure on the courts because they’re trying to handle so many cases and these cases sometimes sit on the docket because we’re waiting on the test results to find out what that substance is,” said Cavazos.

Cavazos says the drug leads to other offenses.

“The drugs are so potent that people kind of almost lose their minds and they will commit crimes they might not have otherwise done,” he said.

This includes aggravated robberies and sexual assaults. The statute of limitations doesn’t allow for prosecution after a certain amount of time in these cases.

“Because if the state doesn’t file charges within those last two years, they can be dismissed,” Cavazos said.

Cavazos explained the drug use is hard to detect.

“The problem is those tests don’t test for synthetic so somebody can be smoking synthetic the night before, show up to court and maybe take one of those tests and come out clean,” he said.

The lack of an accurate test causes problems in court and in treatment.

“There are no screenings that I know of that test for synthetic marijuana. It usually has to be sent to a lab and the pricing is usually over $100,” said Tropical Behavioral Health Substance Abuse Director Stephen Vega.

Vega explains it’s hard to treat what they don’t know.

“It is definitely possible to overdose on your first time and have significant medical complications as a result to that,” said Vega.

A family will not give up on their loved one.

“I’m trying to get him all the help I can from different programs,” said Contreras.

Joseph’s warning to other users, “The only person they’re harming is themselves and the people that really love them.”

In any kitchen in the Valley, a deadly recipe could be waiting on the other side of its door.

The money for the tests, arrests and treatments all come from taxpayer pockets. The Texas Department of Public Safety State Drug Lab has a backlog of tests to get through. Some users may not get prosecuted.

Smoke shops cannot sell synthetics in Texas. The consequences for use and selling this type of drug can lead to hefty court fines and up to six months to life in prison.

A 2017 regional needs assessment by Behavioral Health Solutions of South Texas shows in 2015, 1000 adults and 170 juveniles were arrested for possession of synthetic drugs.

A Valley forensic counselor and recovery specialist, Maria Barrera, says prevention is the best way to stop the problem of synthetic use.

Barrera says in 2015 she conducted a study about the use of synthetics. She found out what kind of synthetic is used most common in the Valley.

“There’s 700 street names for this stuff: 24K monkey, 2K11, aloha, amnesia, Amsterdam gold. See, one of the things that you have to realize in this area – spice. Spice, we had people here by the nickname of ‘Spice’ because that’s how involved they are,” said Barrera.

She says parents really need to be involved in their children’s lives.

The press secretary of the Department of Public Safety, Tom Vinger, provided us a statement and answered several questions regarding synthetic drugs in the state crime lab. He says:

"The department works as quickly as possible to address the high demand at our crime labs with existing resources, employees and funding – at no charge to law enforcement agencies throughout the state. Cases can be worked more quickly in some situations, such as a pending trial. DPS encourages law enforcement and prosecutors to communicate their needs in cases throughout the testing process. Agencies are urged to contact us directly with any concerns.

Private labs are also an option for agencies with funding to pay for services, as it’s possible those labs may provide faster turnaround.

Synthetic drug testing is more complicated than common drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, etc.  We must first test to see what the chemical compounds are, and if we do not have a standard (comparison sample to test the evidence against) for that specific compound, we then have to purchase a standard to complete the testing process. Because of the large numbers of possible compounds, the laboratory has the additional challenge of identifying each specific compound contained in samples. The testing process for synthetic compounds for such things as cannabinoids take longer to complete, up to three times as long as non-synthetic marijuana (plant material).  The submission of synthetic drugs has increased over the last few years."

See specific answers to questions in red below.

What is the current wait to get a result for a synthetic drug test? The average turnaround time for controlled substances at the Weslaco Crime Lab was about two months for the last quarter of 2017. We don’t have a specific number for synthetic drugs.

Is there a separate test that’s administered, specifically for synthetic drug testing? It is the same testing method, but there is a need for different drug standards for each compound when we are testing for synthetic drugs.

If so, when did it become available for law enforcement? DPS Crime Labs started seeing synthetic drugs regularly in 2012.

And on average how often are they requested/used? We regularly see synthetic drugs submitted to our laboratories.

Is there a current backlog at the state lab? As we noted above, we don’t have a specific number for synthetic drugs specifically.

Below are also a list of resources and statistics regarding synthetic drugs.

People may also visit Recovery Unlimited Community Services located at 5115 S. Business 281, Suite 1 in Edinburg. You can contact the center at 956-502-5200.

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