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 neighbourly 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 neighbourhood. 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 neighbouring 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.”
When the Amped craze was at its peak, the parking lot outside of D.K. Tobacco was reportedly filled with cars all day, with some users lingering there late into the night.
Roanoke-area law enforcement learned about bath salts at a monthly summit in March, when Amped first arrived in stores. Vice squad units bought samples of bath salts for testing, but the results came back negative; they contained no illegal substances. A forensic chemist was summoned to explain how these drugs skirted the law. “The message was that there wasn’t any particular consistency in the chemical makeup of the stuff,” Chief Mason said. “It was being manufactured overseas in China, India, and Russia, and they were successful in staying ahead of the law by adjusting the formula.”
In May, bath salts gained national attention as the purported reason for Miami resident Rudy Eugene freaking out and gnawing the flesh off a homeless man’s face. Later, blood test results revealed that there was no trace of bath salts in his system—just marijuana. But bath salts have become increasingly popular among adventurous drug users in the US for at least the past three years. National poison-control centers fielded 6,138 bath salts-related calls in 2011, up from 300 the previous year. Active ingredients in bath salts tend to be “substituted cathinones,” synthetic variations of the natural stimulant found in khat, a plant popular in Africa and the Middle East and akin to coca leaves in Bolivia. At the end of last year, the DEA announced an emergency ban on the two most popular active compounds in bath salts—MDPV and mephedrone—which only served to flood the market with dozens of other substituted cathinones.
Immediately before the springtime zombie scare, a coalition of local and federal law enforcement held a press conference in Roanoke to inform the community of the dangers of bath salts. Standing beside a poster board pinned with various brands—Amped, White Water Rapids, Go Fast, and Snowman to name a few—authorities explained that bath salts were similar to methamphetamines or cocaine and were illegal under the Federal Analog Act. Under the law, an analog is any substance that mimics the effects of illegal drugs; producers try to dodge the law by marking packages not for human consumption. The DEA and the US Attorney’s office told police that they could not enforce the law on the street, but they could help police confiscate bath salts from stores before a Virginia-wide ban went into effect.
In June, local police and the DEA served letters from federal prosecutors to seven tobacco stores, demanding that they relinquish their bath salts supplies. By and large the stores complied, though one owner told me if authorities returned he’d snap their necks.
Salem police chief Jeff Dudley relayed the catastrophic effects that Amped and other drugs have had on Roanoke and the surrounding communities.
Amped’s manufacturer, Wicked Herbals, is based in Tempe, Arizona, and serves as the sales hub for a number of other bath salts labels produced in the area. Eight Ballz, Bullet, Blow, White Water Rapid, Bliss, and Snowman are all available for sale on the company’s website and are based on very similar formulas. On a recent visit to Tempe, I found bath salts to be a booming industry for producers and retailers alike. One long-time Phoenix-area smoke shop owner estimated that in the past three years over 200 businesses have opened in the area with a singular mission. “They don’t sell anything else. They only sell this,” he said, pointing to his glass case filled with colorful packets of bath salts. A competitive market benefits the customer. In his store in Arizona, a half gram of Amped is $12.99.
The bath salts business relies on an international network of ingredient suppliers. Largely based in China, they market their products under the guise of “research chemicals.” Compared to legitimate chemical companies in the US, China’s gray market distributors sell active ingredients in much larger quantities for a fraction of the price. These bootleg substances are correspondingly poor, and often not even those synthesizing them are fully aware what goes in and what comes out. Substituted cathinones are created by adding or subtracting a few molecules. Sales teams keep stateside distributors abreast of the nearly endless options available for purchase. Most bath salts end up containing three elements: a substituted cathinone, a bulking agent, and a topical anesthetic.
Wicked Herbals’ original formula contained a relatively weak substituted cathinone called α-PPP. The product was consistent, but many users found its effectiveness diminished after a couple uses. Looking for a more intense compound, developers decided to use α-PVP as the active ingredient in Amped. An online forum containing an exhaustive catalog of synthetic drugs initially reviewed α-PVP positively—“very, very fun”—but included an addendum: “Edit: After a few months of having this in my town, I’m convinced it’s pure evil. A lot of people start smoking it every day out of nowhere and became complete assholes and started stealing things. This shit is fucked, and not all that much better than MDPV. Surely neurotoxic.” Regardless, α-PVP became the industry standard for most of the Arizona-based labels.
Over the last year and a half, state legislatures have scrambled to add α-PVP to an ever-expanding list of controlled substances. As of July 1, more than 41 states had banned almost 90 known varieties of substituted cathinones. Everyone on the supply chain is monitoring the shifting legal landscape, but almost no one—not producers, retailers, police officers, nor public officials—believes the situation will be resolved anytime soon. There’s too much money involved, and, so long as new active ingredients continue to be developed, new forms of bath salts will be perfectly legal.
When Brittany Cross’s mother, Tina Crockett, died during an Amped binge in April, Brittany was left to make funeral arrangements by herself as her father and stepfather both continued using the drug.
The Roanoke Star is western Virginia’s answer to the Hollywood sign. Erected in 1949, it is perched atop a ridge south of the city, blasting 17,500 watts of neon out over the mountainous region. I traveled to Roanoke three days after tobacco stores pulled bath salts from the shelves. The glow of the star shimmered above the duplex rooftops of Southeast Roanoke, a pristine light illuminating the area’s uniform neglect. People sat on teetering porches smoking cigarettes, drinking cans of beer, laughing, and shouting with passersby on the streets.
In Roanoke’s tobacco-store parking lots, a semblance of normalcy had returned. “The last few days [after the bath salts ban] customers were peeling out of the parking lot all pissed and disappointed,” Barham said. At all the tobacco shops, people said the same thing. The cops confiscated it. All gone. After the seizures, TV-news crews were nosing around the shops. Store owners sensed the coming vilification, and they were skittish. Outside D.K. Tobacco, a guy who looked like Kevin Smith but who wished to remain anonymous said he would tell me the whole story of Amped, for a price. “I injected it into people’s arms. Shit destroyed them,” he said.
After searching high and low for a sample of Amped and turning up empty-handed, I ended up at About Time tattoo shop around 10 PM. Out front, a crowd hanging out by a pair of parked cars gave off a malevolent vibe. Inside the atmosphere was lively. The owner, Randall “Hooter” Horton, said he had been tattooing in Roanoke for 27 years. When his patrons overheard that I was there to research a story about bath salts, they shouted over each other to share their grisly tales: a cell mate throwing his mother down the stairs; a family friend hospitalized for jumping off his roof; a girl biting her mom. Hooter said that he had once watched a friend shoot Amped in his bathroom. “I was like, really? You plunge the stuff?” His friend said it was legal, and assured Hooter he had it under control. But Hooter couldn’t imagine himself injecting the contents of those cartoonish little packets. “Never would have occurred to me it could take someone down like that,” he said.
Hooter (left) and PeeWee outside the About Time tattoo shop in Southeast Roanoke.
The next day, while walking through the Southeast, I met a couple in their late 40s—Mike Williamson and Debra Sue Hoffman. They suspected bath salts were behind the bizarre behavior of one of their neighbors who they recently spotted out in his front yard, pounding his chest like a gorilla and hollering that he was going to kill somebody. At another house I visited, a pretty blonde 18-year-old named Jessica said, “Most people thought of it as a fake drug, and never expected it to hurt anyone.” Her cousin who used Amped developed a blood clot in his brain. Another guy who was young enough for acne to still be a problem said that two weeks earlier his cousin flipped out on Snowman and ended up in jail after launching himself through a window.
A kid named Michael in a Mets hat with satan scrawled in black underneath offered to walk me downtown, which is the Southeast’s euphemism for the Rescue Mission, a nearby homeless shelter. The Salvation Army, which is next to the mission, came into view with its neon-lit jesus saves cross. Half a dozen small groups milled about in front of the shelter. Two doughy guys, maybe in their mid-20s and wearing trendy mall gear, were standing around. I introduced myself to one of them, who said he had tried Amped, but it wasn’t as terrible as its reputation would lead one to believe. A car pulled up and his friend tapped him on the shoulder. They had to go. “That’s the D-boy,” Michael whispered.
“The drug dealer,” he said.
I continued on to a gas station down the street where crack-heads often hung out. It was early evening, but the sun was still beating down on the modest office buildings of downtown. A small group was tooling around on a vacant stretch of asphalt. I asked a man who looked like an unwrapped mummy about Amped. He said he had done it, and liked it, because he could snort it, smoke it, or shoot it. His friend, a shrunken fellow with bloodshot eyes, jostled up and told him not to talk to me. He ignored his buddy’s request, which made him more agitated and prompted him to grab a box cutter from the dirt and thumb the release mechanism. “Ah! It ain’t got no blade in it!” he moaned, throwing it back onto the ground before the pair walked away.
The next day, I met a guy named Tweeker who lives on top of a hill in the Southeast. Tweeker said he only tried Amped once. He and his friends didn’t have any weed, so they bought a half gram and roamed around the neighborhood all night. “It was too heavy for me,” he said. “I thought I was going to die.” I asked him what made Amped different from other hard drugs. “You don’t expect that change from something from a store.”
A 2011 study found bath salts induced serotonin and dopamine levels on par with ecstasy and crystal meth. Both drugs were legally available before they ignited national epidemics. And while bath salts seem particularly insidious now, some evidence supports that they are worse than their forebears. Compared to MDMA and methamphetamine, bath salts require more frequent dosing to maintain the high. At the same time, substituted cathinones cause more powerful adrenaline rushes, so the fight-or-flight mechanism kicks in earlier and stronger than other stimulants. But these technical distinctions overshadow the question about drugs in general: Why are certain people, of all ages, so desperate to take them?
Michael (left) with Tweeker outside his home in Southeast Roanoke.
The next day I found myself at Tweeker’s house, along with Michael. Tweeker’s younger brother had gotten a remote control helicopter caught in a tree and Tweeker climbed up to retrieve it. Michael assisted by tossing a sneaker up to try to dislodge it, but he quickly gave up and lit a cigarette on the stoop.
The sun set over the mountains, infusing the sky with orange and pink while straight ahead the Roanoke Star loomed over the city. I asked Michael why he thought so many people tried Amped. “I guess when you live in this kind of economy, everybody is fiending for every little thing they can get their hands on,” he said, and took a drag of his cigarette.
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