Romeo Blackmer said: “…the use of the ‘Synthetic Marijuanas’ like K2 and “Spice” are being looked at by the DEA as possibly causing deaths. These chemical “copycats” of marijuana have contributed to recent deaths/suicides among users.”
I put ‘synthetic’ in semi-quotes because this term can be a mis-nomer when the amateur chemist has no idea what he has synthesized.
No doubt many readers of this article have heard about the “frozen addicts” of Santa Cruz CA. Santa Cruz is about 25 miles southwest of the western edge of San Jose where I was once Scientific Director of the California Institute for Medical Research (CIMR) located behind Santa Clara Valley Hospital.
One of our investigators was Bill Langston, MD, an Associate Professor in the Department of Neurology at Stanford University, 15 miles up the San Francisco Bay penninsula next to Palo Alto where Becki and I lived in the 80s and 90s. You can find him on Google and Google images along with references to the 1980s PBS Nova production and the book on this interesting story.
Bill was the physician on duty at the back door emergency entrance across the street from CIMR. I used to enter the hospital through that back door quite often eight years later. Often I was met with a jolting shout out from a handcuffed and chained criminal lying on a gurney waiting for medical attention. Well, one day, around 1980-81, Bill was there on duty when some very strange patients seeking attention staggered in. Bill, a specialist in degenerative neurological diseases immediately recognized their symptoms as being like that of severe Parkinson’s disease. But these staggering patients were fairly young and after interviewing the people that brought them to the hospital, Bill learned that their symptoms came on very quickly. By contrast, Parkinson’s symptoms develop slowly but progressively over decades.
Bill quickly learned that these were heroin addicts that produced their own heroin and sold it on the streets of Santa Cruz. Like good chefs, though, they tasted their own product as a kind of ‘quality control’ before they distributed to others.
The police and Langston visited the home of the main Nobel honcho to see what they could find. What they found was a laboratory in the basement where the synthetic heroin was cooked up. They found pages ripped out of a chemistry journal that described the method for synthesis of synthetic heroin there in the lab. These pages led the investigators to visit Stanford’s Lane Medical Library on the center of the Stanford campus, a library where I spent many hours pursuing answers to my own scientific questions. The investigators went to the relevant journal issues and found that these pages had been torn out from these very issues.
I knew the chemist, Ian Irwin, who had determined the chemical structure of the compounds in this precious stash of heroin that was going to make these Santa Cruz ‘chemists’ rich. He found basicly two predominant compounds, one was heroin and the other was a compound eventually named MPTP. These two compounds were present at approximately 50:50 ratios.
Left to right: Ian, MPTP, and Heroin.
There’s an interesting picture of the crime scene in the basement lab where the ‘synthetic heroin’ had been made. A large wall thermometer in the picture read 90 degrees, too hot a temperature for optimal synthesis of synthetic heroin… but who’da thunk it.
After several years, Bill was able to explain the neurotoxicity of MPTP. Experiments on animal models sadly demonstrated that MPTP destroyed the substantia nigra of the lower part of the brain irreversibly. The substantia nigra is the site in the brain where a defect in dopamine metabolism causes Parkinson’s disease.
The only solution for these victims of their own greed and stupidity was a BRAIN TRANSPLANT! But no donors lined up.