Federal drug agents say candy-flavored cocaine is a new and troubling development and are hoping to keep it from spreading to the rest of the country after its recent emergence in California.
Drug rings have occasionally sold cocaine mixed with candy powder, but investigators said the new product was significantly more sophisticated and lucrative. Cocaine cut with an added flavoring is less potent, but the 1½ pounds seized last month were a full-strength powder into which strawberry, coconut, lemon and cinnamon flavoring had been chemically synthesized.
The flavored cocaine would command $1,100 to $1,400 an ounce on the street, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said after DEA agents and state investigators seized the flavored drugs at two homes in Modesto, Calif. Regular powder cocaine, by comparison, fetches $600 to $700 an ounce, the agency said.
Three people were arrested in connection with what DEA agents called “a significant organization.” Two of them, believed to be the ringleaders, could face five to 40 years in prison if convicted.
Gordon Taylor, the DEA’s assistant special agent in charge of the investigation, called the emergence of the candy-flavored cocaine especially disturbing because it suggested that manufacturers and pushers were developing more sophisticated techniques to appeal to children and teenagers.
“Attempting to lure new, younger customers to a dangerous drug by adding candy flavors is an unconscionable marketing technique,” Taylor said. He said it was vital that law enforcement authorities work together quickly to shut down operations that could spread the new drug to other parts of the country.
Taylor and other DEA agents said their next steps would be critical, as the flavored drug, apparently intended to appeal to children and women, had not been seen elsewhere in the country.
‘My daughter would take it’
“I think it’s entirely reprehensible,” police Sgt. Dave Hatfield of Cathedral City, Calif., said of the flavored cocaine. “It’s already a scourge on our society to begin with.”
Jai Barajas, who lives near Palm Springs, Calif., said: “If someone gave it to your child, what would you think? My daughter would take it. She would think it’s candy. She would taste it if it’s powdered.”A look at how heroin, cocaine and other drugs affect the body
Drug dealers and street pushers have long disguised powder and rock cocaine by dyeing it or concealing it in candy wrappers. Police in Virginia, for example, arrested a New Jersey man in February after seizing about 4½ pounds of cocaine hidden in lollipop, chocolate and toffee wrappers.
But the seizure last month is believed to mark the first time that distributors have managed to directly fuse flavoring into the powder itself, and it raises the stakes in a relatively new front in the war on street drugs.
The case comes as authorities were already wrestling with the emergence last year of pink, strawberry-flavored crystal methamphetamine, which hit the streets in California in early 2007 and has since spread as far east as Virginia, where state police seized a pound of the drug three weeks ago in the small town of Galax.
“Meth has sort of a bitter, nasty taste, so it’s kind of easy for the young kids to get into this,” said Henry Spiller, director of the Kentucky Regional Poison Center in Louisville. “It’s an effort to make meth more appealing.”
Flavored drugs heading across country
Authorities said the flavored meth appeared to move rapidly into the eastern half of the country.
“It seems like everyone we run into knows someone that has at least been affected by it,” said a narcotics officer with the Sheriff’s Department in Benton County, Ark., whose name is being withheld because he works undercover.
“Unfortunately, I’ve seen a lot of young people, from teenagers to 20-somethings, doing the drug,” the officer said. “It's definitely something that’s real dangerous.”
Psychologist Sean O’Hara, an addictive-diseases specialist in San Diego, said the candy profile of the new drugs carried a double-whammy: Besides appealing to children in the first place, he said, they can also lull users into a false sense of security.
“They think if they’re getting something that has color in it or is sweet to the taste because it’s been cut with sugar or Jell-O and had other chemicals added to it ... it seems like it’s a less-threatening drug,” O’Hara said.
Alarmed by the emergence of the new forms the drug is taking, Sens. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, introduced legislation to increase penalties for dealers convicted of selling flavored meth. No hearings have been held, however, and the bill has languished in the Judiciary Committee since last April.
A similar House bill, sponsored by Rep. John Boozman, R-Ark., has remained in an Energy and Commerce subcommittee without hearings since June.
Parents urged to be on lookout
In the absence of new legislative tools for law enforcement to use, authorities said it was important for parents to be aware of the new drugs and to keep an eye out for materials that might not, at first glance, seem suspicious.
“If parents see a colored powder or sweet-smelling powder not in a factory package, I would pay real close attention to it,” said Hatfield of the Cathedral City police.
Said Sgt. Michael Conroy, a spokesman for the Virginia State Police: “We don’t want to hit the panic button, but we want to make parents aware.”
By Alex Johnson of msnbc.com. NBC affiliates KCRA of Sacramento, Calif.; KMIR of Palm Springs, Calif.; KNDO of Yakima, Wash.; KSND of San Diego; KYTV of Springfield, Mo.; WAVE of Louisville, Ky.; WRC of Washington; and WSLS of Roanoke, Va., contributed to this report.