By Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Depending on the city, they've been called "fry," "wet sticks," "sherm sticks," "happy sticks," even "illy."
Whatever the nickname, some drug abusers in Greater Cincinnati have joined the trend.
Some people are getting high by dipping cigarettes, Swisher Sweet-type cigars or marijuana joints into embalming fluid and sometimes laced with the drug PCP (more commonly known as angel dust).
On Wednesday, Hamilton County Coroner Dr. Carl Parrott Jr. said that blood tests revealed that Nathaniel Jones had consumed cocaine, PCP (phencyclidine) and methanol within a few hours before his fatal struggle Sunday with Cincinnati police officers. Police previously reported finding powder cocaine and three cigarettes dipped in PCP in Jones' car.
Jones' death presents a first for Hamilton County - never before has the coroner's office dealt with someone who inhaled PCP off a cigarette dipped in the delusion-causing drug, Parrott said.
Toxicologists think that's what Jones did and why they found a significant amount of methanol in his bloodstream. Methanol, or wood alcohol, is an ingredient in embalming fluid, which is often used as the dipping liquid.
Parrott said his office would continue to research the dipped cigarettes, including calling colleagues in Cleveland. That city has seen more cases, he said.
Cuyahoga County Coroner Dr. Elizabeth Balraj, a forensic pathologist, said Wednesday her office has seen "a few cases with them. But I wouldn't say it's a growing problem.''
Alerting experts about 'illy'
Getting high on "wets" traces back as far as the 1970s in Philadelphia, where some abusers called them "illy," as a play on the city's name and the fact that many people got sick after smoking them, according to a study by the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse.
By the early 1990s, growing use of "fry" had been noted in New York; Trenton, N.J.; Hartford, Conn.; and Houston. Since then, it has gradually spread to many other cities - including Cleveland, Detroit and, to a lesser extent, Cincinnati.
"I have heard of it going on here. In fact, it has been discussed several times in meetings with my colleagues around the state," said Tim Lawrence, coordinator of evaluation services for the Hamilton County Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services Board.
On Jan. 14, the Ohio Early Warning Network - a service run by the Ohio Department of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services and the Ohio Department of Education - sent out an "alert" about the trend.
Users often drift in and out of "highs" (which usually last 30-60 minutes, but there have been reports of "trips" that have lasted up to five hours) from frenzied fits of anger to a catatonic state. Doctors say a troop of security guards is often needed to subdue those in "illy rage," the alert states.
"This form of drug abuse has been popular in Cleveland and Detroit for 10 or 15 years. We haven't seen much of it at all in Cincinnati," said Earl Siegel, co-director of the Drug and Poison Information Center at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.
Of more than 5,374 adults in 2002 who sought addiction treatment in Hamilton County, four listed hallucinogens or dissociative drugs - a category that including LSD, PCP and other drugs - as their primary cause of addiction.
"Those figures tell us that this is not a primary source of addiction in the county, but there could still be plenty of people using these drugs," Lawrence said.
Stealing embalming fluid
Whether the cigars or joints are really being dipped in embalming fluid - or just into solutions that contain PCP - is an issue of some debate among drug abuse experts. PCP is not a component of embalming fluid. But "embalming fluid" is an old street slang term for PCP, Lawrence said.
"There is some confusion about what people are really doing," Lawrence said.
What may have happened in recent years is that drug abusers started taking the slang term literally. In some cities, there have been reports of thefts of embalming fluid from funeral homes.
Some tests of fluids obtained from dealers have indeed included embalming fluid and PCP, according to the Texas study.
Embalming fluid can include several compounds - not necessarily in the same concentrations. Components can include formaldehyde, methanol, ethyl alcohol and other solvents.
When inhaled, methanol and the other compounds can have an intoxicating effect. They also can cause brain and lung damage.
Nationally, there were 7,648 hospital emergency visits in 2002 attributed to PCP abuse. That is up from 5,404 mentions in 2000, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
About the drugs found in Nathaniel Jones:
Cocaine: A powerfully addictive drug that in powder form can be snorted or mixed with a liquid and injected. It also can be smoked as free-base and crack cocaine. Cocaine is a strong central nervous system stimulant that also increases heart rate and blood pressure. In rare instances, sudden death can occur on the first use of cocaine. High doses or prolonged use can trigger paranoia. Deaths are often a result of cardiac arrest or seizures followed by respiratory arrest.
PCP: Phencyclidine was developed in the 1950s as an anesthetic, but its medical use was discontinued in 1965. Known as "angel dust," "wack" and "rocket fuel," this now-illegal drug is a white powder (sometimes dyed to other colors) that can be dissolved in water or alcohol or sprinkled on anything from cigarettes to mint leaves to marijuana. PCP is addictive and is notorious for triggering delusions and violent behavior among users. It also can cause sharp spikes in blood pressure and pulse rates along with nausea and loss of balance. At high doses, PCP can cause seizures and death.
Methanol: Also known as wood alcohol, this clear liquid often is found in embalming fluid. Inhaled, it can be intoxicating, but it also can cause double vision and sometimes permanent blindness.
Jane Prendergast contributed to this story. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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