Expert not surprised by designer drug's role in Bridgewater assault


Expert not surprised by designer drug's role in Bridgewater assault

Published: Thursday, July 21, 2011, 5:05 PM     Updated: Thursday, July 21, 2011, 5:23 PM
SCPO logo.jpgAfter the arrest last week of a Bridgewater man who said he was high on "fragrant potpourri" when he allegedly assaulted his girlfriend, he Somerset County Prosecutor's Office has its eye on designer drugs, but doesn't expect it to become a significant problem here.

Despite a high-profile arrest on July 13 of a Bridgewater man who allegedly assaulted his girl friend after smoking drug-treated potpourri, the county Prosecutor’s Office says such designer drugs are unlikely to become a big problem in Somerset.

“We have had only one case in the county so far,” said Jack Bennett, of the Prosecutor’s Office, “and the substance (in that case) has to be tested by the state lab.”

On April 27, the state Legislature added to the list of Schedule 1 controlled dangerous substances six synthetic derivatives of cathinone (benzoylethanamine), a substance that comes from the African shrub “khat.” While khat has been on the Drug Enforcement Administration’s list of controlled substances for about 20 years, versions made in the lab were not.

The legislature made five synthetic versions of marijuana (cannabinoids) Schedule 1 CDS on April 1.

When synthetic cathinone was legal, it was available at local convenience stores, gas stations and head shops, packaged commercially and sold as “bath salts,” “plant food” and “fragrant potpourri.”

Not surprisingly, those retailers have now stopped carrying the merchandise, Bennett said, although cathinones are still widely available for sale on the internet — typically with labels that read, “Not For Human Consumption.” It’s not known whether illicit operations have moved in to take the place of the retail outlets. According to Bennett, however, there have been no big busts of local distributors here.

On July 13 Bridgewater resident James Smith called 9-1-1 to report an intruder in his house. When police arrived, he admitted that there had been no prowler and said that he was high from smoking a treated potpourri called, “Purple Chronic.” Smith, police said, had punched his girl friend, threatened her with a knife and held her down while calling 9-1-1 about the imagined intruder. He was arrested and charged with aggravated assault, terroristic threats and possession of a weapon for unlawful purpose.

The police description of Smith’s behavior jibes with symptoms associated with the use of these drugs: extreme anxiety and paranoia, delusional thinking leading to violence. The mother of a Cranford man accused of the violent murder in March of a Warren Township woman has said that his long-term use of “Bath Salts” likely played a role in his increasing paranoia.

According to Dr. Steven Marcus of the state Poison Information and Education System at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark, the use of cathinones and synthetic marijuana “is, in New Jersey, mostly a 2011 phenomenon.” There have been 39 “exposure” calls of cathinone use since January 1, Marcus said, but none before.

During the first four months of 2011, according to NJPIES, more than half of the cases were admitted to a hospital. Of the 39 exposure calls, 15 occurred in April alone. There have been just 15 since May 1, Marcus said.

“Compared with some states,” he said, “we’re small fish.”

It’s “not an exploding phenomenon,” Marcus said, although officials were fearful at first that it was — particularly after seeing the big increase during April. But that doesn’t mean cathinone use is on the decline, he said. “We continue to get calls, they haven’t disappeared.

“We see the top of the iceberg” he said. NJPIES typically gets calls from hospital emergency room personnel. As emergency rooms handle more cases, he said, “and begin feeling confident they know how to handle it, they may not call.”

In addition to the NJPIES cathinone exposure calls, there have been 82 calls regarding synthetic marijuana this year, a drug that tends to be used by young adults, Marcus said. “Bath salts is an older group.” At 34, Smith, the 9-1-1 caller, fits. But the accused Cranford murderer and his victim were both Rutgers students.

Bennett was unable to say whether the designer drugs have made a significant incursion into Somerset County high schools. “We were concerned, but school is out for the summer,” he said.

Since the substances are now classified, Bennett said, it’s not expected that designer drugs will become a problem, chiefly because their availability has decreased and because law enforcement officials now have “tools” to address their sale, possession and use.

Possessing, possessing with intent to distribute or distributing any of these substances can lead to 3rd degree charges. If convicted, offenders face up to five years in prison and fines of up to $15,000.

When Marcus was told about the Bridgewater assault case he said, “Another one?” To some extent, he said, the behavior is “understandable,” because users of designer drugs become paranoid and hyperactive.

“I don’t want someone to say that the drug made me do it,” he said, but users “might become hyperactive and nuts."

“These are powerful drugs.”

Reach Warren Cooper at or 908-948-1261.