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Designer Drug Could Spur Parkinson’s Epidemic, Official Says

July 26, 1985

WASHINGTON (AP) _ California may be facing an epidemic of Parkinson’s disease among young heroin addicts who encountered a dangerous variant peddled by underground chemists, the state’s chief drug abuse official said Thursday.

Robert Roberton, head of California’s drug programs, told a Senate subcommittee that heroin addicts who used a drug called MPTP as long as two years ago are now beginning to develop symptoms of Parkinson’s, suggesting the drug may be a time bomb ticking away in the brains of unsuspecting addicts.

″In short, what we may be facing is an epidemic of Parkinson’s disease in young adults in northern California as a result of this catastrophe,″ Roberton said. ″The cost to society, not to mention the human suffering, could be immense.″

Roberton and others testified before a Senate Labor and Human Resources subcommittee on drugs at a hearing on the latest turn in the illicit drug market - the ability of underground chemists to produce so-called designer drugs, variants of illegal drugs that escape the criminal definition of such drugs.

The term ″designer drugs″ was first coined in California as a back-handed compliment to chemists who can virtually design a drug to order. Operating out of basement laboratories with common chemicals, they turn out potent narcotics and hallucinogens that fall beyond the scope of criminal law - but can be as harmful or have worse effects than the drug that is outlawed.

John C. Lawn, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said new laws are needed to confront the problem, because chemists can come up with new drugs faster than they can be outlawed under the current statutes.

″The nature of this phenomenon is such that the traffickers can and are circumventing our efforts by creating new uncontrolled analogs of controlled drugs,″ he told the subcommittee. ″Without additional legislation, we will continually be one step behind many of these drug traffickers.″

The California problem began in 1982 when the designer drug MTPT hit the streets in northern California, Roberton said. The drug affects the area of the brain known as the substantia nigra, he said, the same area affected by Parkinson’s.

Roberton said a group of addicts arriving at one medical center two years ago ″resembled in every way elderly patients with end-stage Parkinson’s disease. These young addicts had literally frozen up overnight, and were totally unable to move or talk.

″Treatment with anti-Parkinsonian therapy was probably life-saving in three,″ he said. ″However, these patients continue to be severely disabled and required medication every one to three hours just to be able to move and eat or drink. ... The outlook for their futures must be considered grim indeed.″

Roberton said 20 people have been permanently crippled so far. But he said the cases probably are just a beginning.

″We now have evidence that damage to this area of the brain, even if it is not enough to cause symptoms at first, may act like a time bomb, with changes in the brain slowly ticking away,″ he said.

″Up until now, this concern was just theoretical,″ he said. ″But in the last several months, we have started seeing a group of young people at (the center) who used MPTP two years ago who are now starting to develop a myriad of symptoms, all suggestive of early Parkinson’s disease.″

He said California officials have identified more than 500 people who were exposed to MTPT thinking it was a new synthetic heroin. And he said drug officials believe there are at least 100 to 200 more who have not been identified.

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