A view of Roanoke from the Roanoke Star. Federal agents swept through the area and surrounding towns to clear Amped and other synthetic drugs from the shelves, weeks before their sale was to become illegal in Virginia.
When a legal synthetic drug called Amped first shipped in October 2011, fans of recreational narcotics went crazy for it. Marketed as “ladybug attractant” and “exuberance powder,” Amped was developed by a trained biochemist, a rarity in the otherwise fly-by-night industry. But by the end of February something had changed. Comments from Amped users started appearing on blogs, claiming that unlike the initial batches of the fine high-octane stimulant powder that “made ladybugs scatter,” recent shipments were the color and texture of soggy piecrust. The stuff smelled like piss. For those willing to snort this congealed paste, however, it still provided a decent high.
Bath Salt Guru, the de facto synthetics industry blog, offered an obscure explanation for the change: Wicked Herbals, the company responsible for Amped, had fallen out with its chemist due to an argument over a change to the formula. A post warned readers that the product had been seriously compromised. Dozens of commenters pleaded for more details, and almost as soon as they posted their inquiries, other Amped users voiced satisfaction with their most recent shipments. After a few incoherently despondent responses, the anonymous blogger signed off: FTWWALD—Fuck the World with a Long Dick. Bath salts are more than just an upper. Users found Amped, and other brands, to be more potent than cocaine. One user described it this way: “On coke, you might see a group of girls and decide, ‘I’m the man,’ and go talk to them. On Amped you’d think, ‘Hey, I should work my dick up and go show it to them.’” He recalled taking a leisurely stroll one evening, snorting bumps of Amped along the way. At dawn he was swinging on a rope swing in a stranger’s yard, wearing nothing but his underwear, holding his semierect dick out to girls driving past, hoping he’d get lucky.
Few places were as primed for the plague of bath salts as the Southeast neighborhood of Roanoke, Virginia. Built on a foothill in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Southeast is a hodgepodge of vinyl-sided homes and weed-infested lots strewn with old cars and discarded furniture. A variety of drug epidemics mark past decades like geological strata; opiate and alcohol abuse are realities of everyday life. One resident recounted hitting rock bottom of a heroin addiction after being hospitalized for shooting Drano. Another recalled watching his neighbors roar down the broken asphalt outside his house with crack pipes clutched between their teeth. But drugs haven’t destroyed neighborly camaraderie. For instance, when the local roadhouse recently held a fundraiser for a developmentally disabled infant, the entire community showed up to give their support, including over 100 members of the local motorcycle gang.
Amped and other bath salts brands began appearing in Roanoke-area smoke shops in March, after their manufacturers sent out glossy neon postcards to tobacco stores, promising huge retail profits. Like some sort of farce of the crack epidemic, the proprietors of Southeast’s main tobacco shop, D.K. Tobacco, offered the first round of bath salts at discount. Employees even (allegedly) donned Amped T-shirts to hype the product. Across town, another tobacco store hired a man to hold a sign advertising bath salts. Before long, buyers swarmed.
Salem police chief Jeff Dudley holds up a unit of Amped that one of his officers purchased from a tobacco
“At the busiest times, especially after dark, it was like a Walmart parking lot out there,” said a neighboring business owner who requested to remain anonymous. Some customers reportedly showed up five or six times a day. Locals said it looked like a line outside a food bank. From his next-door tattoo parlor, Charlie Barham watched D.K. Tobacco’s business swell following local news coverage. “Suddenly we saw more than just your average tweaker pulling into D.K.,” he said. “Construction workers driving up in city trucks. Everyone including your grandmother heard about this stuff, and decided it was worth giving a shot.”
In a matter of weeks, signs of wreckage appeared in the neighborhood. Violent face-offs with suspected users became increasingly common, overwhelming police officers and emergency room personnel. In May alone Roanoke city police responded to 34 bath salts-related calls. “It was more than just a serious problem. It was an epidemic. And it came on so suddenly,” said Roanoke city police chief Chris Perkins. By this point the predicament was no longer restricted to city limits; Amped was ravaging the entire county. “We had an officer fight a kid for nine minutes,” said Roanoke County police chief Chuck Mason. “Most of our scuffles are less than a minute. The kid came charging at him out of the house stark naked.” An emergency room physician interviewed by the local news station said that if cocaine and methamphetamines were tropical storms, the bath salts situation was a hurricane.
Another adjacent business owner recounted shaky, glassy-eyed fiends lingering around the neighboring pizza shop and tattoo parlor, asking if the surrounding shops sold ladybug attractant. A few were leaning against lampposts in the parking lot to steady themselves while vomiting. The owners of the bakery next door said that their shop was broken into one night in what they believe was an attempt by the burglars to gain access to the tobacco store.
Angela Marie Crabb, a 31-year-old mother of two, lived two blocks from D.K. Tobacco. She had already struggled with alcohol, heroin, and crack addictions when a friend introduced her to Amped last March. A couple of days after Angela first used the drug, Lorrie Jones, her mother, found her naked and leaning precariously off the second-floor balcony of her building. “It was like watching something in a science fiction movie,” Lorrie said. “The way she contorted her body, her speech, everything was so strange.” Over the course of a few weeks, Angela withered away to 80 pounds, her face ghoulishly swollen. She showed up unannounced at her mother’s house one evening, attempting to bust the windows out in a rage. “It wasn’t her. It was the Amped. It literally looked demonic,” Lorrie said. The next night Angela suffered a heart attack. She spent the next six days on life support before passing away on April 25.
Hours after her daughter died, Lorrie met a young woman outside the hospital who had to have her arm amputated after injecting too much Amped. Two days later, another young mother, Tina Elaine Mullins Crockett, died of a heart attack at least partially caused by Amped. “It was like a cloud opened up over the Roanoke Valley and dumped a band of demons on us,” Lorrie said. “It was like a tornado had gone through. It sucked a lot of people up with it. And my daughter was one of them.” Smoke shop owners shrugged off concerns that they were destroying their community. After all, bath salts weren’t illegal and they were very profitable. Stores bought Amped units wholesale for $5 and sold them for $25. Your run-of-the-mill small-time drug dealer might make $50 flipping an ounce of weed or double his investment with a pound of cocaine. Tobacco-store owners moving a conservative 30 packets a day could easily net over $200,000 a year.
The owners of D.K. Tobacco are Sudanese refugees, and many in the neighborhood regarded the sale of bath salts as an act of national ingratitude. The resentment only grew as store owners flaunted their profits. One rolled up in a new Nissan, which he said he had bought in cash. On another occasion, he flashed a cashier’s check worth the full amount of a new house. “I can’t believe that they didn’t know what they were doing,” said a neighboring business owner who asked not to be named. “Avarice took over. And it was legal.”