Powerful, addictive new drug 'cat' sweeps Michigan like an epidemic

March 28, 1993|By Jim Schaefer | Jim Schaefer,Knight-Ridder News Services

MARQUETTE, Mich. -- For 2 1/2 years, Vince Swenor sucked the seductive, off-white powder up his nose, and with each power-packed hit the mysterious drug pulled him in tighter.

Swenor, seeking to spark up his life in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, had tried cocaine before. But this wasn't cocaine. This was something new, something more interesting, something that he could create at home with common chemicals, some jars and rubber tubes.

In mid-1990, two friends began making it at Swenor's house, and "like a good cookie recipe," he said, the formula spread around the Marquette area. It packed a wallop like no other drug that Swenor, 24, had tried.

"I thought it was the greatest thing in the world," Swenor, a soft-voiced, unemployed construction worker, said last week. "I could make it in my own house, never run out. I had it made."

But with frightening speed, the strange powder had Swenor helpless.

He calls it by its street name, "cat."

He couldn't quit using it even when he was shocked to find that it is made with battery acid, paint thinner, drain cleaner, muriatic acid, other assorted poisons and over-the-counter drugs.

Police laboratory scientists had no idea what cat was when it popped up in the Upper Peninsula a couple of years ago. (The Upper Peninsula is the finger of northern Michigan that extends from northern Wisconsin to Ontario, bordered by lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron.)

After police made the first seizure of the drug in early 1991, it took two weeks of analyses to identify it. The state police chemist who finally rooted out cat's scientific name -- methcathinone -- had never heard of it.

Since police made that first puzzling contact, authorities say cat has blown into an epidemic in the Upper Peninsula, which they call the birthplace of illegal methcathinone in the United States. They still aren't sure why it's taken such hold in the area.

Cat has established a surprising link between the Upper Peninsula and another cold but faraway land, Russia. Michigan authorities in law enforcement and medicine say it's the only other place where illegal use of the drug has been known.

But cat now is seeping into northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Lower Peninsula as police and doctors scramble to squash it in the Upper Peninsula. They fear that the drug could roar across the United States as the recipe spreads.

A spokesman for the Baltimore office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said yesterday that no instances of the drug have shown up in Maryland.

In January, a task force of federal, state and local police in the Upper Peninsula was formed specifically to tackle the cat problem.

No state law specifically prohibits methcathinone, although it is a violation of federal law. The Michigan Legislature is reviewing a bill that would put methcathinone on Michigan's list of controlled substances.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Glenda Gordon, who is based in the Upper Peninsula and is prosecuting several cat users, used the words "scourge" and "epidemic" to describe the status of cat in the Upper Peninsula.

There are several reasons for the concern that cat will continue its spread: The ingredients can be legally and easily purchased, production is cheap and profit potential high, and the chemical process is so simple that it can be done in the back of a mobile van or truck, making detection by police more difficult.

Robert Kelly, the police laboratory scientist who first detected cat in the Upper Peninsula, said a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of the drug could be made for $500. If each gram were sold on the street for $20, the seller could net a $19,500 profit. The price per gram has been as high as $100, but it has dropped as more people make cat, authorities said.

Very little is known about cat except that it is highly addictive, and there have been frightening effects on people who use it. Users have reported seizures, feelings of paranoia, heart palpitations, sleeplessness, hallucinations and an inability to eat, leading to massive weight loss.

Methcathinone was patented in Britain in 1957 by a pharmaceutical company that planned to use it as a diet aid and anti-depressant. Plans were scrapped when it was found to be too addictive.

In the 1970s, the formula leaked out in Russia and spread quickly, said Dr. William Short, who studies addiction at Marquette General Hospital. He said 55 percent of drug addicts in Russia have used cat; most Russian users prefer to inject it.

Last July 30, Swenor was busted. Police stumbled onto his cat operation, he said, when they came to question him about an unrelated matter.

He recently pleaded guilty to making methcathinone and is awaiting sentencing. He said he hasn't touched cat since, but admits that he wouldn't have stopped had he not been thrown in jail for a month.

"I was so addicted to it," Swenor said. "I needed it. I needed to have it. It took about a month of being off cat before I realized I was destroying my life."

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