BOSTON — State officials are warning about a dangerous new synthetic drug that mimics the effects of LSD and has killed nearly two-dozen young people nationwide in the past four years.
The drug, known as N-Bomb, has been blamed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration for at least 19 overdose deaths in California, Louisiana, Minnesota, North Dakota and Virginia between March 2012 and last November, when the federal agency classified it as a controlled substance.
In Massachusetts, law enforcement officers have confiscated N-bomb but haven’t been able to pursue its dealers. The drug’s compounds are not prohibited under current state law. A proposed law seeks to reclassify the drug and make it illegal.
“The DEA and federal agencies can take action when these drugs are found, but we have no corresponding provision in Massachusetts,” said Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan at a legislative hearing on Tuesday. “So, there’s no way for arrests to be made, for cases to be prosecuted, or even for police to obtain a search warrant.”
Rep. Cory Atkins, D-Concord, who filed the legislation, said N-bomb has become popular among teens and has been found by law enforcement in Chelmsford, Weston, Acton and other communities.
“Young people are dying from this drug,” Atkins said. “Before this gets to be an epidemic, we need to respond as quickly as possible.”
Erin Valentine, of East Bridgewater, said her 14-year-old daughter, Emily, died on June 24 at Massachusetts General Hospital of organ failure from an overdose of toxins that were in drugs she took three weeks before getting sick.
Valentine said the hospital couldn’t determine what caused the overdose, and because of that, state police didn’t investigate her death. But she is convinced her daughter died as a result of ingesting N-bomb, based on conversations with her friends and text messages she sent about trying the synthetic drug.
“Her life is gone because of a $5 hit of a drug that isn’t even illegal,” Valentine told lawmakers at Tuesday’s hearing. “This drug is on our streets and in our towns.”
State public health officials recently issued an advisory warning public schools and local governments about the toxic compounds.
“Teenagers appear to be the largest group of users,” said Health Commissioner Cheryl Bartlett in a statement. “Because of this, it is especially important that community leaders, education institutions, parents and other adults are aware of these drugs and their powerful, at times deadly, impacts.”
These substances — which are chemically known as 25I-NBOMe, 25C-NBOMe and 25B-NBOMe — are sold online and in street-level sales. They come in liquid or powder and are commonly mixed with food or beverages.
Atkin’s bill would classify the compounds as Class B substances, grouping them with LSD, cocaine and ecstasy. Possession would be a felony punishable by fines of up to $1,000 per offense or a year in jail.
Law enforcement officials said N-Bomb is the latest in a surge of synthetic drugs made of legal chemicals that mimic the dangerous effects of pot, cocaine and other drugs. Manufacturers, some of them overseas, often modify formulas and develop new chemical mixtures, according to the DEA.
The result is a potent, hallucinogenic drug that can create violent, psychotic episodes, the DEA says.
“In some cases, these kids have no idea what they’re taking,” said DEA New England spokesman Tony Pettigrew.
Lawmakers two years ago banned “bath salt” stimulants that mimic the effects of traditional drugs like cocaine. The state is also considering a proposed ban on synthetic marijuana, which is legally available in gas stations, convenience stores and smoke shops, despite accounts of teens overdosing on the substance.
In March, the DEA raided suspected synthetic drug-makers in 28 states — including Massachusetts. Agents arrested 150 people and seized more than $20 million in cash and assets.
The government also sanctioned four foreign companies — including a Chinese pharmaceutical company — that authorities said bought and sold significant amounts of chemicals used in many popular synthetic drugs.
Ryan said the chemical compounds in N-bomb were developed in 2003 by neuroscientists who were studying receptors in the human brain.
“These compounds were actually developed as a result of legitimate research,” she said. “They have somehow spread out of the laboratory and are now being mass-marketed across the country.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @cmwade1969.
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