By Stephen K. Peeples
In February and March 2012, KHTS-AM 1220 News reporter Stephen K. Peeples went behind the scenes on special assignment to explore the illegal drug scene in the Santa Clarita Valley. He spoke with law enforcement, educators, city officials, drug/alcohol rehab counselors, youth advocates, recovering addicts and parents.
HometownStation.com's "It Takes a Village" portal page  has links to all five in-depth features and other related content.
Now, on the eve of the city of Santa Clarita's second "Heroin Kills: The High is a Lie"  symposium on Wednesday, Aug. 29, and six months after KHTS' in-depth series of stories, Peeples provides an update in Part 6. Included are the latest local heroin and prescription drug overdose statistics and another look at the growing problem of synthetic designer drugs in the SCV.
In Part 1  of our "It Takes a Village: Drugs in the SCV" series, posted Feb. 29. 2012, we got some hard, cold facts about drug overdose deaths from Bob Wachsmuth, a detective assigned to the Juvenile Intervention Team, part of the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff Station's Narcotics Bureau.
In just the first two months of the year, he said, three young men ranging in age from 20 to 33 had died of prescription pill overdoses (Xanax and Oxycontin). There had been one heroin overdose, a 23-year-old man who survived.
"If those numbers were to continue, we’d have terrible statistics for 2012," Wachsmuth said then.
Now, six months later, at the end of the summer: "In 2012 so far we've had 13 people die of opiate overdose, which includes straight heroin or OxyContin and Hydrocodone tablets," Wachsmuth said. "Nine of them (were) by accidental overdose, four by suicide. They ranged in age from 16 to 37."
Of the 13, he said, "Seven were from prescription opiate drugs — primarily Oxycontin, where the individuals crushed the tablets to avoid the time lapse factor that the manufacturer puts into the tablets, and then the individual would inhale (by) snorting the powder."
The other six were heroin overdoses, Wachsmuth said.
There were five heroin overdoses in all of 2011, and we have four months left in 2012. It would appear Wachsmuth's fear six months ago was well-founded.
Designer Drugs: Synthetic Pot, Bath Salts
Then there are designer drugs like bath salts or synthetic cannabanoids that mimic the effects of marijuana or other psychotropic or hallucinogenic drugs.
Sold in small packets for as little as $10 under names like Spice, K2, Cush and 100X Legal at places like gas stations, convenience stores, smoke shops, head shops, and on the Internet, marketed as "not for human consumption," the substances are smoked or snorted or ingested by people, usually young, who are looking for a cheap high.
Because abuse of synthetics can cause severe and dangerous physical and psychological reactions, and abuse has increased on a national scale faster than lawmakers can keep up with it, many synthetics became illegal  in July when President Obama signed off on legislation adding five of the active ingredients in these products to Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act as of March 1, 2012.
This move allowed the federal Drug Enforcement Agency to crack down on synthetics nationwide now, not later, by going after the manufacturers, distributors and even retailers of products containing these now-banned chemicals.
"Several of the synthetics, both the synthetic stimulants and the synthetic marijuana, (are now) a federal crime," said Det. Bill Velek, also assigned to the SCV Sheriff's Station's J-Team.
"The DEA has been doing numerous things across the country," he said. "They did come out here (in spring 2012). They did a joint operation with our Narcotics Bureau looking for these substances being sold in the regular head shops, smoke shops. We didn't have a big issue with it. We're continuing to educate the smoke shops of the illegal nature of it, making sure that they're all aware they're not to be selling it."
In late July, DEA agents raided manufacturers, distributors and retailers in about 200 U.S. cities including eight in California. The city of Los Angeles was one of the cities targeted for this initial crackdown; Santa Clarita was not.
As far as overdoses on synthetic marijuana or other designer drugs, Velek said, "So far (this year), we've only had one person come into custody that we confirmed was under the influence of a synthetic stimulant, which is normally the bath salts, or they sell it as glass cleaner or bug killer."
Since they're illegal now, if these products are still on sale in the SCV, Velek said, "It's underground, just as the regular narcotics. We haven't seen it on the counters of any of our smoke shops. When the substances first became available, you could find them in a smoke shop, and as of (the last) several months I've been unable to find any place selling it openly."
If detectives do get a tip from a citizen that a local retailer is selling now-banned synthetic drugs, Wachsmuth said, "We'll go in, in undercover capacity, and try and see if it's there. Or we'll go in, in uniform, and advise the shop owner of the illegal nature of it. When we've done that, because the laws are so new, they're completely cooperative with us and immediately take it off their shelves."
A Different View from the Street: Still There
A well-known drug and alcohol rehab counselor, an experienced emergency room doctor and a pair of former drug users told us the problem with synthetic drugs is still growing in the SCV, notwithstanding the federal ban.
Most former retailers of synthetics may have stopped selling them, but not all.
In the Santa Clarita Valley, at least one location, the Mobil gas station/convenience store at the corner of Soledad Canyon Road and Sierra Highway in Canyon Country, was still selling a wide variety of synthetics as of Monday, openly, right at point-of-purchase. The packet of "lab-tested potpourri" pictured at left was purchased there Monday afternoon.
And the "not for human consumption" drugs are still widely available on the Internet.
As to local law enforcement not knowing about locations that still might be selling the outlawed substances, they just may not have been tipped off yet.
As to why detectives don't hear about most synthetic drug overdoses, it's partly because abusers are more inclined to ride out the bad effects somewhere, not in public, or trying to drive somewhere, until they wear off.
Emergency Room Doctor Sees Spice Spike in Last Few Years
Or, if they're really in medical trouble, abusers go to the ER for help, not the Sheriff's Station. Once a person is under a physician's care, privacy laws are in effect. It becomes a doctor-patient issue that most often doesn't involve law enforcement.
A Spice user freaking out badly enough to want to go to the ER at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital in Valencia might encounter Dr. Oliver Sahagun, a staff emergency department physician there for the past eight years. Before that, he was an ER resident at L.A. County-USC Medical Center for four years.
Because a lot of these designer chemicals don't show up in drug tests, Sahagun said, he can't quantify the number of overdose cases he sees that are specific to synthetics. He only knows when the patient or family members tell doctors what substance the patient took. Otherwise, more than half the time, he said, doctors have to run a multitude of expensive, time-consuming tests to rule out myriad other possible organic causes of the symptoms.
"But I can tell you that the number of cases anecdotally has increased significantly in the last year or two," Sahagun said. "Based on information from, for example, 2008 and 2009, these cases have gone up from maybe four to 20 — higher than in previous years."
The patients Sahagun sees are mostly teenagers and young adults. "At least two-thirds to three-quarters of the (patient) population is people under the age of 25, but as young as 13, 14, 15 years of age," he said. "Predominately in my own experience, I've been dealing with mostly high school students, college students, high school drop-outs.
"A lot of these patients will come in with what we call psychosis, psychotic delusions," Sahagun said. "They still have some sort of altered mentation, they're agitated, restless, anxious. They may complain of complications, of feeling very hot. Usually they're sweating, their heart rate is very high. They appear to be paranoid, just hypervigilant. Sometimes so paranoid and hypervigilant that they could be of danger not only to themselves, but to our own staff."
He said the treatment is "all symptomatic." If they're overheated, doctors will use cooling blankets, fans, and/or medications to cool them down. If their heart rate is high, they get medication to lower it. If they're agitated and pose a risk, they're sedated.
"Sometimes you've got to physically restrain them," Sahagun said. "If they present with seizures, you've got to give them anti-seizure medication. Sometimes seizures can be prolonged, which might effect their respiration, in which case you would actually have to sedate them, paralyze them and put them on a breathing machine. Sometimes it can be that bad."
Sahagun attributes the recent spike to easy access, and what we'll call the "whack-a-mole" effect, where as soon as one groups of drugs is banned, another group that's somehow still legal pops into the pharmacology.
"The DEA has banned the active ingredients in a lot of these drugs, but there's literally hundreds of formulations," he said. "Not all of these drugs are banned or have been banned by the DEA, so when they're marketed as 'Not produced for human consumption' and they include drugs that haven't been banned, then they're easily obtained. People can get them from head shops, they can get them very easily over the Internet. There's just a multitude of websites and chat rooms that mostly young people are accessing it to talk about the highs and the euphoria you can get from these drugs."
Dr. Sahagun's best advice to anyone contemplating experimentation with drugs like these?
"The problem with these synthetic drugs is that they have a much higher potent effect on the body, the brain, the cardiovascular system," he said, compared to organic forms of the drugs, which he does not condone using, either.
"Synthetics have much higher tolerance, addictive potential, dependence," Sahagun said. "They have a much higher capability for use, which could leave to mischievous behavior where you're lying to your family and stealing just to obtain the drug to satisfy your cravings. And because of its potency, one day you could end up with an illness that could result in long-term disability or even death. Don't do it."
Taking ACTION Against Spice
"About 50 percent of all the kids that we're dealing with now in our clinics throughout Santa Clarita and throughout Southern California have also used Spice and other synthetic drugs," said Cary Quashen , head of the ACTION drug and alcohol counseling and rehab centers, local radio host , and a nationally recognized expert on the topic.
Quashen noted some of the reasons he hears. "One, they're looking for anything that'll give them a high, anything they can (get) that's going to make them feel different, and Spice definitely fits that category.
"And they were thinking that we aren't testing for it. So if people are (being tested) for marijuana, and of course meth, they're going to use something that they're not being tested for, and Spice certainly fell into that category, too," he said. "But now the tests are available, and we're testing for those chemicals, too. So, synthetic drugs are an issue here in the Santa Clarita Valley, an issue everywhere. Fortunately, because of the new ban, it's going to be harder to get, which is exciting news for me."
Quashen would be even more excited if Spice and other such products containing recently banned substances were not still being sold locally, like at the aforementioned gas station, at all.
"My guess is a lot of people don't even know it's illegal yet," he said. "There's not a lot of education. I've seen it on the news once. I'm hoping that (the DEA is) sending letters to the distributors, and the distributors are letting the people who are buying from them know that this is an illegal substance now. If it's still being sold to people, there need to be charges pressed on people selling it."
Opiates and alcohol were the drugs of choice for Shane Davis, a 17-year-old Canyon Country resident who got sober eight months ago going through an ACTION detox program. When he was using, he said, a lot of his then-friends would get synthetic cannabanoids like Spice instead of pot or heroin to get high.
"A lot of them were saying, 'Yeah, it doesn't show up on drug tests,' and it was cheap, easy to get," Davis said. "Anybody can get it nowadays. You don't have to be 18 if you're getting it online. It gets you high, but one of the biggest effects of it is, it just melts your brain. A lot of my friends now are permanently messed up on it."
Davis's advice to a potential Spice user?
"I'd tell that person definitely not to do it," he said. "From my experience, I started out with just regular ol' weed, and I know a lot of kids nowadays — specifically younger guys and younger girls — don't want to do those drugs. So, they'll do stuff that's legal, because it's legal. They think that if it's legal, it's OK. But actually, no. Because for me, (marijuana) led into other things, 'cause eventually you want to try new things."
We spoke with another young Santa Clarita Valley man, now 20, sober and living a new life, on condition of anonymity, about his experiences using Spice with other friends when he was 17 and 18 years old. We'll refer to him as Tom.
He and his then-friends would get packets of Spice at liquor stores and smoke shops pretty much anywhere in the SCV, or occasionally online.
"We used to try all different kinds of Spice, as an excuse for being stupid and to feel good for a little while," Tom said. "It's because everyone was doing it, and we didn't know what we were doing or what we could get into, what the causes, what the effects, could be from it. Some were more dangerous than others.
"We tried this very dangerous one called Triple X Lights Out Black Mamba, I think, that we didn't really read about," Tom said. "Usually when we got it, we'd head over to Valley View Elementary at night, at midnight or 1 a.m., and just break it up into little pieces. We brought a friend's bong that night. We would usually smoke half-bowls or bongs and (use) some really stupid stuff for pipes.
"We started lighting up. It hit us pretty fast, within a couple of minutes, and it was a really short, good feeling," Tom said.
"But then it instantly turned to the worst. Everything became very slow," he said. "It felt like we weren't breathing. The pain started, the nausea started becoming overwhelming. We couldn't move our bodies at all. We had to lie down on the floor, drained, barely conscious, calling for help to the other people. But were separated. It was weird, really strange, and the worst feeling ever. We could've possibly OD'd that night, just from a couple of hits.
It took about 30 minutes for the worst symptoms to pass, Tom said. "But we still had to sit there and just recover from it. We were out of breath and just drained. It really sucked how it controlled our bodies. It felt like it could have been laced or something. We didn't know. That was one of the last times we tried Spice."
Not long after that, Tom had a spiritual epiphany one night, and quit getting high for good.
"I was at a party that night, and kind of got dragged from that situation literally, and that weekend really spoke to me," Tom said. "Basically, I had a decision between life and death. I didn't want to have to live that stupid, boring life, what it (had become) to me. So I prayed for the first time in many, many years.
"I started going back to church, and meeting with old friends and people who really cared about me, and I really felt welcome and comfortable," Tom said. "I basically found God in that situation and accepted this new life. It turned my entire life around, accepting Jesus and asking Him to come into my life and changing who I was. It didn't even matter what I'd done. Now, being able to go through all these new experiences, and all these new people, places and events, just being able to live and love joyfully — it's the best feeling ever, a million times better than my old life."
Medical rehab, counseling, religion, roughing it, or some combination — whatever works to get off, stay off, or never start drugs in the first place.
Santa Clarita's Second 'Heroin Kills' Symposium
After a year, how effective has the city's "Heroin Kills: The High is a Lie" outreach program been in boosting awareness of the local hard drug problem?
We'll get a reading from a panel of experts at Wednesday's second annual "Heroin Kills" symposium, open to the public at the Santa Clarita Activities Center and starting at 6 p.m.
The panel will include Santa Clarita Mayor Frank Ferry, SCV Sheriff's Station Capt. Paul Becker, local ER physician Dr. Darrin Privett, Quashen from ACTION, Hart District Student Services Coordinator Kathy Hunter, A Light of Hope's Tim Taurig and others making a concerted effort to combat heroin addiction in the SCV.
We'll also get details on the city's new "Drug Free Youth In Town" program, based on a similar and successful awareness/prevention/intervention initiative in Dade County (Miami), Fla. (as previewed in Part 5 of this series  in March).Santa Clarita's program is set for launch in September.
One wonders what will happen when all the marijuana dispensaries in the city of Los Angeles close Sept. 6. Could there be yet another spike in abuse of synthetic pot? Or worse, other more addictive drugs? Would that ban affect us in the SCV?
Along with how to reverse the continued rise in local heroin deaths and addiction, that may be just one more question posed at Wednesday's event.
See links to all previous stories on the "It Takes a Village" portal page .