SARANAC LAKE - Local law enforcement, corrections, emergency rescue, social services and school officials got a lesson in drugs Friday morning.
State police Senior Investigator Samuel Mercado talked to about 25 people at North Country Community College about some of the drugs that are becoming more prolific these days, including synthetic marijuana, bath salts, Suboxone and methamphetamines.
The talk was sponsored by the Franklin County Drug Task Force. Franklin County Sheriff Kevin Mulverhill told the Enterprise the task force had heard about Mercado's presentations and decided it was a good idea to bring him to the area to raise awareness about newer drugs.
State police Senior Investigator Samuel Mercado shows what some synthetic drugs look like during a presentation Friday morning at North Country Community College.
(Enterprise photo — Jessica Collier)
"It's out there, it's coming in this direction, it's here, so it's time to educate those people who are going to be dealing with it first," Franklin County Sheriff Kevin Mulverhill told the Enterprise.
Mercado gave the same presentation in Malone Thursday, and he said about 100 people were there.
Mercado, who has been working in the state police's narcotics wing for more than 20 years, has been involved in a lot of undercover work in the New York City area, where police get a good idea of drug trends - what's being sold and abused, and how.
He noted that often it's social services workers, emergency rescue responders and others on the front lines who encounter these types of issues first, so it's important for them to know what to look out for and what they need to be careful of.
"Law enforcement is the last to find out," Mercado said.
He first talked about synthetic marijuana, which, until it was banned recently in New York, was readily available to buy at convenience stores and smoke shops. It's marketed under names like Spice or K2 as herbal incense and labeled "Not for human consumption."
"Is that true?" Mercado said. "No. That's exactly what they want you to do with it."
Though it's marketed as being similar to pot, synthetic marijuana is actually more of a hallucinogen and has potentially life-threatening side effects like anxiety, paranoia, headache, vomiting, psychosis, seizures and increased heart rate and blood pressure. Because of those last two, often people on synthetic pot have high body temperatures and tend to take their clothes off.
Also, where real marijuana has a relatively consistent smell, the synthetic versions are labeled as incense and often have different, flavored scents.
"It has nothing to do with marijuana," Mercado said.
Synthetic pot is banned under Public Health Law but not under Penal Law.
"It really amounts to like a speeding ticket," Mercado said.
Drugs are outlawed in Penal Law according to their molecular makeup, and that's the problem with a drug like synthetic pot, Mercado said. It's called a designer drug because people modify its chemical makeup so it no longer fits the drug that is illegal.
Because of that, there are no field tests to find out whether a substance is synthetic pot, so either a person needs to tell a law enforcement officer what it is or police need to bring it to a lab to have it tested. If it tests positive, police have to track the person back down to give him or her a ticket, which amounts to a violation that leads to maybe a $50 fine.
That issue also applies to bath salts, the common term for a drug that started out as Methylenedioxypyrovalerone, or MDPV.
To possess MDPV is a felony under Penal Law, but that version of the drug hasn't been seen for about six years.
"It's morphed 14 times," Mercado said. "The original version no longer exists."
Bath salts are also sold as "plant fertilizer," or Mercado said he's also heard it recently being sold as "industrial machinery cleaner." It's a white to light brown crumbly powder and is most commonly taken by sniffing it like cocaine, though it has also been known to be taken orally, by smoking it, through an IV or rectally, a method more common in prisons.
Bath salts have a three- to four-hour high, which is longer than cocaine, Mercado said, though the physical affects like seizures, panic attacks and psychosis can last six to eight hours.
Other side affects include nosebleeds, sweating, vomiting, hallucinations, depression, panic attacks and suicidal thoughts.
Mercado said that when he gives talks at schools, he often brings up the case of a Florida man who got high on bath salts, took off all his clothes and started eating the face off of a homeless man. Mercado calls it the zombie drug, and he said this is starting to get kids to back off of bath salts.
"They need to know how badly this drug can turn out," Mercado said.
As the drug continues to morph, police are seeing more violent reactions to it, Mercado said.
One of Mercado's biggest concerns is that police are seeing regular marijuana laced with things like bath salts, PCP and heroin. He said dealers will sometimes add drugs like that to low-grade pot to give users a greater high and make it feel like a more high-quality marijuana experience. Much of the marijuana that undercover cops buy is tested and comes back showing it is laced with another substance.
Both bath salts and synthetic pot are still readily available for sale online, Mercado said.
Suboxone is a drug designed to ween addicts off of heroin, similar to methodone, but it can be administered at home rather than at a clinic. It's becoming a highly valued drug in prisons since, in either pill or film form, it's easier to sneak in than other types of drugs. Mercado listed several examples of people getting caught smuggling Suboxone into prisons by hiding it under can labels, behind a postage stamp on a letter, or even on what appears to be a child's coloring book page, disguised as crayon.
"It can easily take the shape and form of whatever you want," Mercado said.
People on Suboxone display slurred speech, sedation, headaches, cold sweats, mood swings, insomnia, hallucinations and slow, shallow breaths.
Mercado finished by talking about methamphetamines. Meth labs are popping up more and more in the North Country, with a number found by police recently in Clinton County. Mercado said this is an ideal area for cooking meth, since it's rural and there's plenty of open space, so the strong smell produced by cooking it can easily dissipate without being noticed.
Meth has been around for a long time, but the proliferation of the Internet has made it easier for people to find out how to cook it safely, which is why it's becoming more common, Mercado said.
He said that with about $100 of ingredients that can be found at a local Walmart, a cook can produce about $1,200 in meth.
"That's why this drug is taking off," Mercado said.
Meth can come in a crystal, powder or rock form, and the color of the powder varies from white to yellow to brown. It's generally ingested by smoking it, but it also can be snorted, eaten, injected through a needle or mixed in with a liquid drink like ice tea.
The high from meth lasts 12 to 20 hours, longer than most other drugs, Mercado said.
Meth is very addictive, Mercado said. He explained that when a person has sex, about 300 dopamines are released, creating a pleasurable experience, as compared to 1,200 released when a person does meth.
People "tweaking" on meth can go 10 to 12 days without sleep and often display bizarre behavior, like dismantling all their small appliances or spending all day digging a hole.
Police need to be careful of people high on meth because they can display superhuman strength. He described one incident in which a 5-foot-5-inch, 150-pound man needed police to use a Taser on him and to break his arm before they could take him into custody.
Because meth is often smoked out of a pipe with a hole in the side that's covered with a finger, meth addicts will have a small round burn mark on one of their fingers.
They also often dig at a particular spot on their arm, face, legs or other part of their body because they think they can feel bugs. That often leads to visible sores on their bodies.
Tweakers also have rapid losses in body weight, white tongues because of the harsh chemicals that pass over their tongues regularly and rotten teeth, both from grinding them and because the chemicals eat away at their tooth enamel.
The process of cooking meth uses ammonia, so the smell it produces is similar to that of cat urine. Mercado said people should be aware if they notice someone who often smells like that.
Mercado said the signs of a clandestine meth lab include chemicals like acetone, found in nail polish remover; ephedrine and pseudophedrine, found in Sudafed; alcohol; ether; paint thinner; lithium, which can be found in certain kinds of batteries; and red phosphorus, found on the heads of matches.
Meth cookers often put hydrous ammonia in propane tanks, which aren't meant to hold it. A sign of this is if the brass fitting on a tank is turning blue, because that means it's being oxidized. Mercado said such a propane tank can blow up like a bomb, so people should be careful if they find one. Often the pieces of meth labs can be discarded in the woods or other out-of-the-way places, Mercado said.
Meth labs are hazardous waste sites, so local law enforcement agencies discovering one should try not to touch anything, otherwise the federal government may leave it to the municipality to clean it up, which can be an expensive process, Mercado said.
Mercado also touched briefly on how heroin recently has started making a comeback. It's becoming popular among middle-class people who start using opiates prescribed to them in the form of painkillers like Vicodin, he said.
"The new gateway drug is painkillers," Mercado said.
Contact Jessica Collier at 891-2600 ext. 26 or firstname.lastname@example.org.