The Land of the Free… and Designer Drugs. 

The Land of the Free… and Designer Drugs. 

“One pill can kill” 


Words by Carmen Macri and Ambar Ramirez 


A novel synthetic substance is rapidly spreading through Jacksonville — with potentially deadly consequences. Known as “N” for N-Dimethyl Pentylamine (hydrochloride), this drug falls under the category of cathinone, which are natural stimulants derived from Khat, a plant that is illegal in the United States. However, the version of the drug surfacing in Jacksonville is entirely synthetic, combining a hazardous blend of chemicals designed to imitate the effects of the natural stimulant. 


The narcotic is a white or brown crystal, which is cut or pressed into a powder for various methods of ingestion, including injection, snorting or smoking. Individuals are mixing conventional narcotics like cocaine, ketamine, tuci, MDMA and other powdered substances with this cathinone, resulting in a potentially lethal impact. This situation bears resemblance to the fentanyl epidemic that Jacksonville has been grappling with.


A drug shipment recently arrived in the United States from China and was listed as “beauty products,” according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. And as of 12 months ago, the dangerous narcotic began surfacing in bars and nightclubs within the Jacksonville metropolitan area. DEA Assistant Special Agent in Charge Mike Dubet revealed in a recent interview with News4JAX that this cathinone is relatively affordable with prices ranging from $100 to $200 per ounce. People are turning to it as an alternative because of the low cost and similar, stronger effects. 


“So, people are buying what they believe is cocaine. Or people are buying what they believe is ecstasy when in fact, it’s this chemical that has similar effects but could be more intense and dangerous,” Dubet explained. 


When a synthetic narcotic is mixed with other substances, specifically stimulants, the chemical reaction can prove to be a lethal weapon. Cocaine is the drug most frequently laced with cathinone, and this combination can result in severe and unpredictable consequences for the user. Cathinone itself is a potent synthetic stimulant, and when mixed with cocaine, which is already a powerful stimulant, the result is intensified and dangerous.


Some symptoms of mixing cathinone and other narcotic stimuli are heightened euphoria, energy and alertness, but this can also escalate the risk of anxiety, agitation and paranoia. It can place a significant burden on the cardiovascular system, leading to elevated heart rate and blood pressure and a risk of heart-related complications such as heart attacks or strokes. Seizures and other neurological effects are more likely to occur with a higher risk of overdosing at a lower dosage. 


The synthetic drug cathinone was initially discovered in Sweden in 2014. However, when the drug resurfaced in U.S. toxicology reports several years later, very little was known about it. Even today, our understanding of this substance remains limited. 


Synthetic cathinone is commonly recognized as “bath salts.” However, it’s important to note that the chemical composition of bath salts is consistently evolving. What we understood about bath salts just a few years ago now represents an entirely different substance from what it is today.


“It [synthetic cathinone] goes by “bath salts,” which is kind of a name that has been around for some time. But they’ve changed some of the chemical makeup of it, and now this is what the new one is,” Dubet explained. “We’ve got dealers that are selling this as cocaine, we’ve got dealers that are selling this as MDMA or ecstasy. So not only is it in our area but it’s also being represented as other other types of drugs.”


Jacksonville has also recently become a hotspot for fentanyl distribution within the last five years. Individuals are cutting narcotics with the synthetic opioid to cut down on costs, resulting in thousands of deaths. It is illegally manufactured and distributed, and its presence in the illicit drug market has led to an increase in opioid-related overdoses and deaths. According to the CDC, of the 107,375 drug overdose-related deaths in 2022, 67% involved synthetic opioids like fentanyl and now cathinone.  


A mere 2 mg of fentanyl, equivalent to the size of the tip of a pencil, is deadly for the average human. It is up to 50 times stronger than heroin, 100 times stronger than morphine and has a heroin-like effect. It is often mixed with other drugs because of its extreme potency, making the drugs cheaper, stronger, more addictive and far more fatal. Illicit fentanyl is responsible for more deaths among Americans under 50 than any other cause, surpassing heart disease, cancer, homicide, suicide and accidents. Not only does the illegal drug pose a threat to lives but it also poses a threat to the integrity of prescribed medications. 


“It’s the most urgent drug threat that is facing our communities. It is poisoning and killing Americans at record rates. I believe over the last 12 months we’ve lost approximately 10,000 people in our country to poisonings and overdoses. That’s a little over 300 a day,” Dubet stated. “It doesn’t discriminate. You try one pill one time, and you don’t wake up from it.”


Unfortunately, a common occurrence is when individuals unable to afford specific prescription drugs such as Oxycodone, Xanax and Adderall resort to obtaining these necessary medications from unsafe sources. This risky practice often involves drugs laced with synthetic opioids, leading to tragic events where individuals unknowingly take what they believe is a normal dose, only to end up in the hospital or worse.


“Folio” reached out to DEA Assistant Special Agent in Charge Mike Dubet for more information on the concerning increase in the presence and distribution of cathinone and fentanyl in the Jacksonville area.


“I think our message is if it wasn’t prescribed to you, don’t take it. If it wasn’t prescribed by a doctor and you didn’t get it from a reputable pharmacy, do not consume it,” Dubet shared. “One pill can kill.”


These narcotics are commonly known on the streets with pseudonyms such as arctic blast, bloom, meow meow, cloud nine, pure ivory, snow leopard, stardust, vanilla sky and zoom. The list goes on. 


“Every day we work with our state and local partners to go after the people that are responsible for distributing this stuff on our streets, for the people that are responsible for transporting it into our communities. And we’re generally going after the people that are mass producing this thing on the other side of the border and bringing it to the United States,” Duvet said. “So we try and work all of our cases back to the source and go after the entire organizations that are responsible for ultimately poisoning our citizens.”


On July 5, over 1 million lethal doses of fentanyl were seized in a trafficking operation when the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office Narcotics Unit joined forces with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the North Florida High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (North Florida HIDTA) for Operation Tulsa and Operation Jam. Operation Tulsa resulted in the confiscation of one kilo of fentanyl and 5.25 pounds of fentanyl pressed into pills, equating to 500,000 potential lethal doses of the synthetic opioid. Similarly, Operation Jam confiscated 1.18 kilos of fentanyl along with the arrest of the individual smuggling the drugs. Thankfully these operations were successful in keeping a portion of these narcotics off the streets, but there is always the risk of these illegal drugs slipping through the cracks and into the hands of our loved ones.  


A tragic incident unfolded on June 26 when police officers responded to a distress call at a residence in Callahan. There, they found a 9-month-old baby lying unconscious on the living room floor. An officer administered CPR and rushed the infant to the hospital, but despite the efforts, the young boy was pronounced dead. Subsequent investigations revealed a distressing revelation. The medical examiner’s report indicated the presence of fentanyl in the baby’s blood — with a lethal amount that could have been fatal to 10 individuals. Shockingly, it was discovered that the 17-year-old mother had laced the baby’s bottle with a substance she believed to be cocaine, leading to this heartbreaking outcome.


“Folio” also spoke to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office regarding the rise of synthetic narcotics in the city. Officer Maximo Morel stated the department has actively promoted public service announcements emphasizing the dangers of illegal drug use. 


“It is crucial to raise awareness about the risks associated with purchasing illegal narcotics,” Morel explained, “as users are often unaware of the substances they are truly buying or the potentially dangerous additives that may be present.”


As of 2020, Jacksonville has participated in Project Opioid, a Central Florida-based coalition created to challenge the opioid overdose crisis in communities across the state. Project Opioid in Jacksonville has united leaders from various sectors, including businesses, churches, nonprofits, educational institutions, criminal justice and public safety initiatives, philanthropists and 13 individuals holding government positions. Their goal is to raise awareness of drug abuse and reduce the stigma surrounding addiction. Their efforts focus on promoting a culture of seeking help and collaborating with the city to establish and enhance programs that motivate individuals to embark on a journey of long-term recovery.


Jacksonville Sheriff T.K. Waters highlighted the decline in violent crime statistics citywide and attributed these positive outcomes to the effective targeted narcotics operations at a press conference on Wednesday. He expressed pride in the agency’s multifaceted approach to crime, incorporating prevention, intervention and enforcement strategies.


According to a News4JAX report, Jacksonville has witnessed a noteworthy 24% decrease in the number of murders compared to the same period last year (from 62 in 2022 compared to 47 this year) and a significant 25% drop in the number of people shot (216 in 2022 compared to 162 this year).


There are initiatives people can take to further educate themselves on synthetic opioid awareness. Facing Fentanyl is a non-profit fentanyl awareness group. Families who have been affected by the synthetic narcotic came together to build an organization that challenges the impact of the fatal drug. Together they speak for victims and those affected by fentanyl. They created Operation Facing Fentanyl, a campaign providing prevention education and opioid reversal kits for schools. They believe safety should be a prerequisite, not an afterthought.


Further, they have initiated the National Fentanyl Prevention and Awareness Day scheduled for August 21. They have also prepared a letter open for anyone to sign and send to President Biden, urging him to declare Fentanyl poisoning a national emergency.


As awareness surrounding opioid overdoses continues to grow, the availability of Narcan and naloxone has significantly improved. These life-saving treatments have recently been granted approval for over-the-counter usage. Functioning as medications that act rapidly to counteract opioid overdoses, Narcan and naloxone attach to opioid receptors, effectively blocking the effects of other opioids. With a simple spray or injection, you could save a life. 


Be safe, be aware, be alive.