Pictured are baggies of "ecstasy" pills which narcotics officers confiscated during an investigation in Crawford last month. The pills are not traditional MDMA, and instead are laced with methamphetamine, caffeine and other substances. Lowndes County Sheriff's Office Capt. Brian Turner, commander of Lowndes County and Columbus' joint narcotics task force, and Sheriff Eddie Hawkins said the pills resemble candy and appear "kid friendly," making them particularly dangerous drugs. Photo by: Courtesy photo
Narcotics officers with Lowndes County and Columbus' joint drug task force seized a pound - or about $1,000 worth - of moon rocks during an investigation in south Lowndes County on July 24. Moon rocks are cannabis buds sprayed with hash oil and rolled with kief.
Photo by: Courtesy photo
August 22, 2020 6:23:45 PM
Since she began working for Baptist Behavioral Health Clinic in 2009, clinical coordinator Amanda Coleman says she's seen a definite increase in the number of patients with drug addiction and the severity of their problems.
"Back in that time, even on our inpatient unit our census ran about 13," she said. "Now we stay at a capacity of 30 pretty much all the time. And of those, I don't know specific numbers ... but just from my observations and my perceptions it definitely seems that there's always something new, as far as drug usage."
The trend is not only due to an increase in opioids like heroin, fentanyl and prescription medication, but also to "designer drugs" -- traditional drugs like methamphetamine and cannabis repackaged and laced with other substances.
"The drug trade is alive and well," Clay County Sheriff Eddie Scott told The Dispatch earlier this month, adding the only drug he's seen a decrease in over the last few years has been crack cocaine.
As of July of this year, Lowndes County's joint narcotics task force agents have seized four dosage units of fentanyl, 14 grams of heroin, 13 pounds of marijuana and more than 2,000 dosage units of ecstasy, according to numbers Sheriff Eddie Hawkins provided The Dispatch. By the same time last year, agents recovered one dosage unit of fentanyl, no heroin, eight pounds of marijuana and 14 dosage units of ecstasy. From 2017 to 2019, Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics also saw increases in heroin, fentanyl, prescription opioids, ecstasy and edibles.
The ecstasy tablets in particular are different from MDMA (methylenedioxy-methamphetamine) people traditionally think of when they think of ecstasy, said Hawkins and Austin Shepherd, director of the Columbus Crime Lab which works with law enforcement agencies throughout north Mississippi.
"In general, kind of throughout north Mississippi, we're seeing a good bit of ecstasy pills coming in," Shepherd said. "The interesting thing is what a lot of people are calling 'ecstasy' -- we don't see a lot of real ecstasy in north Mississippi. It's mainly methamphetamine and caffeine pills."
While MDMA is a derivative of methamphetamine, and both are stimulants, Shepherd said, MDMA has a strong hallucinogenic effect. The ecstasy most law enforcement are seeing locally is "basically meth" in pill form, Hawkins said.
Methamphetamine has long been a drug of choice for many in Golden Triangle and other parts of Mississippi, and narcotics agents still see plenty of it, Hawkins said. What bothers him more about the pills are the fact that they're often mixed with other, more dangerous, substances.
"It can be anything from caffeine to amphetamines to even fentanyl," he said, referencing a potent synthetic narcotic which the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports resulted in more than 31,000 overdose deaths nationwide in 2018. "... So they're extremely dangerous."
The other problem with the pills is how they're designed, packaged and marketed, said task force commander Capt. Brian Turner, adding the design appears kid-friendly. The pills are often made in local motels -- though stronger substances are trafficked in from out of state -- and sold on the street sometimes for as little as 50 cents per pill.
"They look like little sweet tarts or little candy," Hawkins said. "People don't understand how dangerous this can be because you don't know what you're consuming or what the distributer or manufacturer is putting in this drug and then putting out on the street."
While Scott said Clay County officers haven't been seeing as much of the ecstasy as law enforcement in Lowndes County reported -- CCSO still seizes methamphetamine primarily in its traditional crystallized form -- he said they have been seeing marijuana and marijuana edibles coming from western states where the drug has been legalized.
In many cases, Hawkins and Scott said, the THC (the illegal substance in marijuana which produces a high) is higher than it used to be.
Like the ecstasy pills in Lowndes County, many of the marijuana products are specially packaged and marketed, Scott said.
"We've actually gotten some marijuana that's different flavored," he said. "... You can get vanilla, different flavors, different smells of it. It's kind of a designer-type packaging."
Among the marijuana products are moon rocks, which Turner described as a "spinoff of hash oil."
"Basically you take the buds of the marijuana and dip it in hash oil and roll it in kief," he said. "Kief is like a marijuana pollen. ... Not only do they roll it in that, but they also add flavor to it.
"Your normal marijuana is about 20 percent THC, but these moon rocks are supposed to be having 50 percent, so it's a lot stouter," he added.
It's those types of drugs, along with the increase in opioids, that Coleman is seeing more of, and that often have stronger effects on patients than traditional substances.
"The (patients) that we see are actually generally ... coming in because they have used something synthetic and it has negatively impacted them in such a way that they are psychotic," she said. "They are having hallucinations that don't stop when they stop using, just continue on. They cause a lot of paranoia, suspiciousness of people, and some of that stuff lingers on for long periods of time.
"It used to be if they smoked something or used something ... there would be a high from it and then they would come down," she added. "And now the coming down doesn't seem to always happen."
Education, prevention and incarceration
Hawkins and Turner believe the solution to the drug problem is a "three-pronged" approach: educating the public, and particularly students and their parents, about what drugs look like and the dangers of addiction; providing help and rehabilitation for those with addiction problems; and incarcerating the drug manufacturers and traffickers who provide addicts with newer, and in some cases increasingly dangerous, products.
Jeanette Manning, a drug and alcohol addiction counselor at Baptist Behavioral Health, pointed out that addiction is considered a disease, one that needs to be treated by medical means.
"Drugs change the brain chemistry, and they change it in structure and how it works," she said. "Prolonged use of drugs ... does change the whole chemistry of your brain, causing someone to engage in reckless behavior, compulsive activities, crimes. That's why they commit crimes, they go and rob people, they do anything to get drugs."
Many of Manning's patients have told her it only took them one use to get hooked on their drug of choice, particularly if there's a history of addiction in their family.
Treating addicts not only helps the individuals struggling with drug problems, but on a wide enough scale, could help cut down on the production of drugs in and of itself, Turner said.
"Without a consumer, you can't make any money," he said. "By handling that problem, we eliminate the customers."
"We've got programs set up to help anybody who wants help," he said. "There's all type of rehab, drug courts, this and that that's already in place. You've got to bite the head of the snake off, and that's going to be the traffickers."
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