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Thursday, July 2, 2009

Illegal drugs such as Ecstasy showing up as cartoon-shaped pills in KC

The Kansas City Star
Ecstasy tablets look like children’s vitamins.
Ecstasy tablets look like children’s vitamins.

Drugs shaped like Snoopy, Transformers and President Barack Obama’s head recently showed up on Kansas City area streets, adding to a trend that worries police and health experts.

Colorful Ecstasy pills started showing up last year shaped as Homer and Bart Simpson, Ninja Turtles and other characters. As more of the pills that look like vitamins or candy go out locally and nationwide, they put children at great risk, police and experts said.

“Someone leaves this around … kids pick them up and boom,” said H. Westley Clark, director of the federal Center for Substance Abuse Treatment.

The result could be seizures, a spiked blood pressure and heart rate and even death, he said.

Last month, Drug Enforcement Administration officials in Nevada sent out warnings that the cartoon pills were in Las Vegas. Dealers there call Ecstasy “Thizz” and market it to minors, the DEA warned. They also said they had found pills shaped like Ninja Turtles, Transformers and other Simpsons characters.

Police in Utah last month busted a drug ring and found 500 Ecstasy pills stamped in the shape of Obama and Snoopy.

The cartoon character marketing is a ploy by predators to promote a dangerous drug as light fun in order to sell to more teens and young adults, Clark said. The irresponsible marketers also use false advertising, police said, because the tablets often contain no Ecstasy at all but instead a powerful mix of other drugs.

For more than a year, about half the so-called Ecstasy pills tested at labs in Kansas City and Johnson County have turned out not to be Ecstasy. They were a combination of other drugs once used to treat stomach parasites that have effects and dangers similar to Ecstasy.

The shaped tablets are more likely to be fake than flat tablets sold as Ecstasy, drug experts said.

Ecstasy tends to crumble and does not press as easily as the piperazine family of drugs once used to kill stomach worms, said Zachary Skinner, a forensic chemist at the Kansas City Police Department crime lab.

It takes a combination of two variations of piperazine to get the Ecstasy effects, he said. This combination surfaced in New Zealand in the 1990s as “legalX,” but many countries have since criminalized BZP, one of the variations.

In the United States, BZP is illegal under federal law and Missouri law, but it is legal in Kansas.

Balerie Kamb, a supervisor at the Johnson County crime lab, said that should be changed. Her lab started occasionally finding BZP two years ago, but it skyrocketed, she said. “We’re surprised now when we get (Ecstasy) instead of BZP.”

Other state crime labs are starting to report the same. In Ohio, labs first found the worm-killer drugs in January 2008 and within a year they were in more than half the pills tested, according to an Ohio report.

The report also said some users call Ecstasy “a surprise high,” because they never know what they’re getting or how strong it will be. Drugs like caffeine, methamphetamine and even heroin also sometimes get into the pills.

Forget exact dosages and quality control, Clark said, and sloppy manufacturing also can make people sick from bacteria or chemical contamination.

In Australia, more than 60 people have died in the past eight years from Ecstasy or another drug substituted for it, according to media reports.

In the United States, there are no comprehensive numbers on deaths, but reports from cities in eight states found it was involved in 50 deaths in 2005, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Kamb said simply, “You’re playing Russian roulette with these pills.”

Ecstasy use rising in Kansas and Missouri
Ecstasy has spread to colleges, high schools and the rap scene since it became popular with rave gatherings in the 1990s.

Although usage has been on the decline nationally, it is up among high school students in Kansas and Missouri, according to government studies.

Americans older than 12 who said they had taken it in the past year dropped from a high of 3.2 million in 2002 to just over 2 million in 2007.

But in the latest surveys from two years ago, Missouri and Kansas are both far above the national average of 5.8 percent of high school students who report they have used Ecstasy.

In Kansas, 8.6 percent of high school students in grades 9 to 12 said they had used the drug, up from 6 percent in 2005.

In Missouri, 6.9 percent of high school students said they had used it, up from 6.1 percent in 2005.

To reach Joe Lambe, call 816-234-7714 or send e-mail to | Joe Lambe,

© 2009 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.