Officials worry about party drug BZP
It's called "Frenzy" or "Nemesis" in the clubs -- a party drug similar to Ecstasy in its chemical makeup and euphoric effects.
It's also perfectly legal to own in Canada and officials are worried it's being smuggled over the border to Metro Detroit. Prosecutors and legislators are looking to toughen penalities for possession of the drug, n-benzylpiperazine, or BZP -- which usually comes in pill form in kitschy shapes such as Homer Simpson, smiley faces or even the visage of President Barack Obama.
About three years ago, it started showing up in metro Detroit, said Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper. Last year in Oakland County, there were about 22 cases, she said. And its presence appears to be growing.
"Because of our geographic location, there's likely to be more availability of BZP in this area," said Rich Isaacson, Drug Enforcement Administration special agent. "Frequently it's been sold as Ecstasy, but in reality BZP mimics amphetamines more than Ecstasy."
You can't walk up to a pharmacy and ask for a package of "Frenzy," but the drug is available over the Internet and has been a club favorite with young adults since the 1990s when Ecstasy gained popularity.
Its effects are similar to amphetamines. Users take them for the feelings of euphoria, alertness and energy. At higher doses, though, users have reported stomach pain, vomiting, feelings of paranoia and extreme anxiety. The drug increases heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature, which can be dangerous or even fatal.
"We know in the last six months about seven of the Michigan State Police labs have reported about 149 cases where BZP was analyzed," Cooper said.
Her office is working with state legislators to "close the loophole" that limits the penalities that can be imposed by local prosecutors.
Currently, local prosecutors are limited to charging someone with BZP with a possession of an imitation controlled substance -- a two-year charge often levied when someone tries to pass off baking soda as cocaine or oregano as marijuana, Cooper said.
No medicinal value
According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, BZP is a powerful stimulant with no medicinal value.
In 2004, the federal government branded it as a Schedule 1 controlled substance. That classification means BZP serves no legitimate medical purpose and has a high abuse potential. It also means those in possession could face federal criminal charges. But the state hasn't kept up legislatively with the federal charges concerning BZP.
Ecstasy is also a Schedule 1 drug. Possessing any amount can land someone in jail for up to 10 years. If the person is looking to sell it, it's a 20-year felony.
State Rep. Lisa Brown, D-West Bloomfield, is looking to ratchet up the penalty to make possession, manufacturing or distribution of BZP a 20-year felony.
"The thing that scares me the most is it looks like a Flintstone vitamin," Brown said. "They're marketing it to our young adults. We have to keep up with these drug manufacturers who are making this in their basements."
Drug crossing border
Figures aren't available on BZP use with teens, but Ecstasy use among 10th- and 12th-graders was higher in 2009 than five years ago, according to an annual study of drug trends conducted by the University of Michigan.
The perceived risk of using Ecstasy continues to drop -- a trend that concerns Lloyd Johnston, University of Michigan professor and lead research scientist of the survey.
"Given the glamorous name and reputation of this drug, I could easily imagine it making a comeback as younger children entering their teens become increasingly unaware of its risks," Johnston said.
The federal government does get involved and levies charges when the quantities are especially high, Cooper said. Canadian Joseph Tannous, for example, pleaded guilty Feb. 24 in U.S. District Court to one count of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute BZP.
Officials from the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement busted Tannous in October after he crossed over from Canada. The bust stemmed from an April encounter in which officials said Tannous dropped off 10,754 tablets which officials said he believed to be Ecstasy but was really BZP, to a person working with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
Tannous is jailed on the federal charges and is expected to receive 46-67 months when he's sentenced May 27 by U.S. District Judge Nancy G. Edmunds.
Meanwhile, law enforcement agents from several jurisdictions continue their efforts.
"It's safe to say there have been and continue to be ongoing investigations regarding BZP in the region,"
Steve Pardo / The Detroit News
Last Updated: March 09. 2010 3:12PM