How dealers are evading police with deadly synthetic drugs
ST. LOUIS, MO (KTVI) - A new strategy by drug dealers to evade the law is catching up to them. A mother and son duo recently pleaded guilty to distributing about $6 million worth of drugs. Yet dealers continue playing a shell game in hopes of making new users out of people who might not normally try drugs.
These are substances you can buy in stores. They're synthetic copies of things like marijuana and cocaine. You can purchase them at some gas stations, t-shirt shops and novelty stores. It's creating a unique challenge for police and parents.
Max Harris was in a bait and tackle shop in St. Charles County when she remembers meeting the nicest woman. Harris said the woman "gave me a sample, basically a free pack, and was like, 'Hey try this.' And then it was off to the races."
It was in a colorful package with a logo. The powder inside was called a Cathinone. Think cocaine, but possibly stronger.
"I could go to a store and get it rather than call up Pookie or Ray Ray and say, 'Hey, can I get a sack?' It was just like, hey, I can go to the store, get some M&M's while I'm there and call it a day. It was just very easy to access."
She said the saleswoman couldn't have been more helpful.
"She did 'nice' things," Harris said. "Like if I didn't have enough to pay for the drug she would offer, 'Oh come back when you can or write me a post-dated check' which, when you're a user, that's music to your ears. (I thought to myself) yeah! I can get my fix and I don't have to give you money? Cool!"
She was dealing with Pam Tabatt. Just before she pleaded guilty in federal court recently, Tabatt told the judge she struggles with PTSD. She didn't say why. Harris would like to know since she contributed so much to Tabatt's reported millions.
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"I lost my car. I didn't have electricity for six months," Harris said. "I literally ran an extension cord from my neighbor's house to my house so I could charge my phone and my computer. But I didn't care. I mean, as long as I could get my fix and you know I could smoke, I didn't care. And it was...$30 to $60 a day, so I mean, you multiple that out by 30 days and you're looking at $900 - $1500 a month. And I wondered why I couldn't pay my bills."
Our Fox Files investigations had reported on Tabatt since October of 2010, testing product after product sold from her stores. We ordered tests on everything from the synthetic Cathinones, which were sometimes hidden in packages labeled "bath salts" -- to synthetic Cannabinoids, often called K-2 and labeled as "incense."
DEA Special Agent in Charge James Shroba told us, "Opioids is the next front."
Shroba says agents are tracking the beginnings of drug traffickers tweaking the chemical compounds of Fentanyl. He added that it's "Hundreds, if not thousands of times more potent than heroin, or other opioids and this will, there will certainly be tragic consequences with these."
Many deaths are never reported, because the substances often sneak past drug screens.
Shroba described the user saying, "They spin that chamber on the gun just as in Russian roulette, only there`s more than one chamber that's got a bullet in it."
The DEA has traced much of it to China. Take a look at the power of the China connection in an illustration - this shows the rising number of the synthetic cathinone called Methylone, flooding our neighborhoods. The USA banned it here in 2013. It still climbed until China banned it in 2014, then it took a nosedive.
Meanwhile, a similar cathinone called Ethylone remained legal in China and quickly took over.
Shroba said, "18 months goes by and you've got a whole new user base that never paid attention to the other enforcement actions or the community outreach or the stories that you`ve done yourself on your network. They don`t know anything about that."
DEA evidence photos show 20 liter drums of acetone used in manufacturing and cement mixers used to stir experimental chemicals. The substances are broken down into smaller and smaller batches until it's finally sifted into 30 dollar pouches labeled things like 'Dr. Feelgood Potpourri.'
Harris says the best feeling was completing detox. She said, "I shouldn't be alive. So every time I wake up in the morning I`m like 'Woo! I get to do it again!' It's just, I love life. I love being alive."
Her reported dealer meanwhile, looks nothing like the happy helpful person she used to see behind the sales counter. As Pam Tabatt walked out of Federal Court I asked her, "What`s your post-traumatic stress?" She didn't answer as the person who drove her away flipped me his middle finger.
Police and medical workers meanwhile, sometimes equate a spike in drug use to an outbreak. They often don`t know what`s wrong or what the person ingested. A paramedic firefighter Tweeted in February "We (with the St. Louis Fire Department) see it first ... and a lot lately. (It's) reminiscent of the walking dead," he added.