DRUG GAMES: How some kids are outsmarting parents

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Jason Hawk | Amherst News-Times
Retired Franklin County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Michael Powell speaks on the ways some teenagers have invented to hide drugs and paraphernalia around the house.

JASON HAWK
EDITOR

Kids can be incredibly smart and inventive, which are great qualities — unless they’re using their know-how to hide illicit drugs.

Take for example a simple lipstick container.

In the hands of Sgt. Michael Powell, it looked perfectly normal. But with a flick of his fingers, the longtime narcotics investigator revealed it to be a cleverly-rigged container for carrying drugs in plain sight.

A highlighter hollowed out to serve as a pipe.

A fake cell phone shell hiding a digital scale within.

A metal bolt with a hollow head just large enough for an ecstasy tablet.

A plastic Ritz Bits container with a false bottom.

Peanut butter jars, chewing gum bottles, table salt containers — all converted into “diversion safes” for concealing pot, meth, or cocaine.

“We show you these items to show how good kids are at concealment. Much smarter than us as adults,” said retired Capt. Shawn Bain.

Powell and Bain are retired from the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office, where they have decades of experience in special investigations, including drug interdiction.

Powell is a graduate of the FBI National Academy, served as a supervisor with the FBI Drug Task Force in Columbus, has taught police narcotics courses all over the state since 1984, and is now detailed to the Ohio High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.

Bain is also a grad of the FBI National Academy as well as the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Drug Unit Commanders Academy. He’s served on numerous task forces with the FBI, DEA, and U.S. Marshal’s Office.

They brought their knowledge and experience May 29 to Amherst Steele High School for “Operation: Street Smart.”

The two-hour program revealed drug trends for young people, the way paraphernalia is being marketed and moved, and disturbing statistics.

In speaking to seventh- and eighth-graders, the investigators have discovered they often know far more about the illegal drug market than their parents — what drugs are out there, how to get them, and how to hide them.

Middle and high school students often have the tacit assistance of head shops where the right buzzwords can grant buyers access to all kinds of paraphernalia.

Powell and Bain have firsthand knowledge of those practices, going undercover in head shops all over the state to make buys.

They directed us to www.headshopfinder.com, which lists more than two dozen smoke shops, vape stores, and dispensaries in our area. Such places often have workers “trained by their attorneys on what they can say and not say” about products that while legal can aid illegal drug use, according to Bain.

He and Powell advise parents to be incredibly cautious about normal-seeming objects found in odd places. For example, a highlighter found in the bathroom should throw up a red flag — it could be a covert smoking device, they said, holding up an example of a real one used for just that purpose.

The number one hot spot parents and teachers should check for evidence of drug use is the trash can, they said.

About 10 percent of high school seniors across the nation have admitted to smoking marijuana within the past month, they said.

Marijuana itself has changed drastically. In the past few decades, its THC content has gone from about three percent to as high as 18, he said.

It’s also taken on new shapes: Extracts can be formed to look like beeswax, cheese, glass, or powder.

Very few are lighting up blunts. Green, leafy pot is “for old people” and the trend among younger users is e-cigarettes and vape pens, said Powell.

Whether used for marijuana, cocaine, meth, or tobacco, vaping is dangerous for young people. It’s been found to stiffen and narrow arteries, damage the decision-making part of the brain, and cause severe respiratory problems.

Bain said Juul is the most popular brand and he’s encountered cases of kids using them right in the classroom because they are so small and easy to conceal — they can be easily smuggled around in markers or disguised as USB sticks.

But the dangers of pot are dwarfed by those posed by alcohol.

When you look at the big picture, alcohol remains the number two overdose killer after fentanyl, said Powell.

It can look different too, said Bain: BuzzBallz look like juice containers but the drinks are 40 proof. “Pocket shots” look like energy drinks that can be slipped into a pocket easily and can weigh in at 80 proof.

And never estimate the ingenuity of underage drinkers looking for a quick buzz.

The investigators said they’ve discovered all kinds of strange methods of ingesting alcohol — some incredibly twisted.

Have you heard of eyeballing? That’s using saline eye drop containers to shoot alcohol into the bloodstream via the eyes.

Other methods include snorting syringes full of vodka, making alcohol popsicles, soaking gummy bears in booze overnight, vaporizing alcohol, and “power-blasting” bottles of hand sanitizer.

Flasks can be hidden in pompoms, mittens, tampons, or moisturizing lotion containers, said Powell.

The drug experts have even seen cases where kids have pulled alcohol from vanilla extract, perfumes, and household cleaners.

There is some good news in all this.

Opioid overdose deaths are down in Ohio for a few reasons: First, there’s a prescription reporting system in place to make it harder for addicts to “shop” for pain pills by going from doctor to doctor. Both physicians and the general public are better educated about the dangers posed by heroin and prescription painkillers. Expansion of Medicaid has allowed more people to get treatment for addiction. And naloxone is also far more readily available for those who do overdose.

Heroin deaths statewide are at a four-year low. If preliminary data from 2018 holds up to close analysis, the state will have seen a 21 percent decrease in deaths.

That would give Ohio the largest decrease in drug deaths in the nation. Cuyahoga, Summit, and Montgomery counties all show huge drop-offs in OD fatalities.

But Bain said the bad news is that every opiate epidemic in U.S. history has been followed immediately by a stimulant epidemic — and that’s what Ohio is experiencing now.

Cocaine and methamphetamine deaths are on the upswing and fentanyl is being found in 71 percent of all overdose death victims.

An average of 13 people a day in our state die by overdose.

More than 200 Americans are killed by overdoses every day.

Where are the drugs coming from?

Powell said almost all illicit drugs come into the United States across the Mexico border. They’re brought here by powerful cartels that not only flood the market with drugs but also commit mass murders to consolidate their power.

But Powell offered an interesting take on the political aspect of the crisis: “A lot of people feel Mexico is our drug problem,” he said. “The truth of the matter is the reverse. We’re Mexico’s drug problem.”

We’re “also Canada’s drug problem” with illegal substances flowing easily back and forth along our northern border, he said.