Good morning, PharmChem.
"Yes. It's positive. Destroy the marijuana. Get rid of it. Consult your physician."
Panic in Needle Park was never like this.
One corner of the beleagured laboratory is overrun with boxes and plastic drawers full of envelopes, bags, and packages - 2,000 of them - some marked "Special Delivery," all containing one-half gram samples of marijuana sent in by pot smokers now awaiting the word on Paraquat contamination.
Once upon a time, PharmChem Research Foundation was a cool, calm street-drug testing facility running an "analysis anonymous" service and employing a three-man staff that had little trouble sifting through and analyzing approximately 75 drug samples a week.
That was last month.
In February, Science Magazine published an article about the U.S. Mexican government operation of spraying Mexican marijuana fields with an herbicide called Paraquat. Soon after, Bob Fogeson, chief chemist at PharmChem, developed a testing system for Paraquat detection in pot. The first few days after PharmChem announced its test system, the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] received 100 marijuana sample in addition to its regular cocaine-amphetamine-LSD load. (According to government estimates there are about 13 million marijuana users in the U.S.) That weekend, HEW announced possible health hazards, including possible permanent lung damage, stem-ming from Paraquat-contaminated pot. The following week, PharmChem was besieged - 1,500 marijuana samples. "Basically," PharmChem director John Kotecki says, "all hell broke loose."
The foundation hired 12 more full-time staffers to help in the lab - to open mail, to lend order to the chaos caused by the 300-plus pot samples a day coming in from all over the country. It takes up to three weeks for an answer.
Now the Palo Alto switchboard is ready to blow.
"It was eerie at first," Kotechi says. "You put the phone down, pick it back up again, and there'd be somebody on the line. The phone wouldn't even ring. People were just there. Instant communication".
The first three cases of apparent Paraquat poisoning were detected last week at the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic in San Francisco. The three pot smokers, who'd received positive Paraquat contamination test results at Pharmchem, complained to the clinic of breathing difficulty. Both had blood in their suptum. "Our reaction was not one of surprise," says Rick Seymour, adminstrative assistant at the clinic's training center. "It's just the thing we were hoping wouldn't happen. We do expect more case."
PharmChem was founded in 1972 as an adjunct to PharmChem Laboratories, a commercial business running for local and state governments as well as far methadone clinics. The non-profit PharmChem Research Foundation ($1,000-a-month deficit is covered by the parent company) prepares weekly radio reports on its street-drug analyses, and publishes a monthly newsletter, whose subscribers include drug treatment centers, hospitals and the local drug enforcement agency. The foundation's purpose, Kotecki says, is to give 'an objective scientific view" of streetdrug adulteration, an area, he adds, largely given to hysteria, emotionalism and fear.
Before the Praguat run, most drug samples sent to PharmChem were cocaine, emphetamines, barbituates and LSD. Pot samples, Kotecki says, were relatively few.
"And up until a few weeks ago," Kotecki says, "it was kind of fun around here."
Chemist Fogerson is working 12 to 14 hours a day ("He lives in the lab," Kotecki says) developing a high-volume testing system that will allow the foundation to test several hundred samples of pot a day. "And 400 a day," Kotecki says, pointing to the sample-crammed corner of the lab, "is a conservative estimate of what it'll take us to catch up, get rid of this backlog, and get the results out."
Twenty percent of the samples PharmChem tested thus far have contained Paraquat, according to Kotecki. And because so little is known about the effects of contamination, because there is no known antidote, and because so far PharmChem is the only drug-testing facility with a Paraquat [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] test. PharmChem is beset by [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] . Their clients expect [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] to be the Wizard of Oz. And most frustrating to PharmChem [WORD ILLEGIBLE] is that they're just as powerless as the Wiz.
"We can tell somebody that the test is positive" Kotecki says. "And the next natural question is, 'Well, what do I do?' They're stunned. They want advice. We tell them first to destroy the pot, then to consult a doctor."
"Everybody wants answers," Kotecki says, "and we can't give them. We're handicapped. The only thing we can do is give the results, and try to control the misinformation that goes out."
You can tell by looking at it whether pot is contaminated with Paraquat. Not true.
Paraquat-contaminated pot has a funny odor. Not true.
Paraquat-contaminated pot produces obvious side effects, like headaches and lung pain. Not true.
You can conduct a simple home test - just add sodium dithiomite and if the pot turns violet, it's contaminated with Paraquat. Not true.
Definitely not true. Paraquat in its pure form turns violet when sodium dithionite is added, but, chemist Fogerson explains, "when you're talking about Paraquat-contaminated marijuana, you're talking about 3 parts per million to 650 parts per million concentration.
(HEW's National Institute on Drug Abuse from their testing in Mexico detected Paraquat in amounts of over 2,200 parts per million. HEW stated earlier this month that permanent lung damage could result within months for users with a daily habit of one to three joints.)
Good afternoon. PharmChem.
The test tubes are rattling and the lab analysts are using Thin Layer Chromatography testing: TLC. The 12-hour process requires three chemicals, at least one of which is flammable and a caustic agent to eat away most of the marijuanna.
While this is going on, phone calls are coming in from as far away as Canada and Miami. Most are asking for test results. Some are simple information calls: How long will it last? Isn't it awful? What can we do?
"That kind," Kotecki says, "just tie up the line while somebody blows off steam. We tell them to call or write their elected representatives instead."
Then come the outright hustlers trying to make a kill on what the Pharm-Chem crew calls "the Paraquat peril."
"We've had any number of people say, 'If you come up with any (standard testing procedure), we'll be happy to market it for you.'
"One guy has a home test going on the market pretty soon, and Bob (Fogerson) checked it out, and it just plain doesn't work. Somebody else calls and says they're working on this home test system and 50 cents out of every sale will go to NORML, and they'll do the same for us - a percentage of everything they sell."
The catch, Kotecki says, is that the entrepreneur wants the PharmChem foundation to either help develop the system, or lend its name to help advertise the system.
"We tell them," Kotecki says, "that we don't want any proceeds from anything, that we'll be happy to test whatever system they come up with and publish the results to let everybody know how it works. But if it doesn't work, we're going to let everyone know that, too."
PharmChem would be ecstatic, Kotecki says, if someone were to develop a home test system that worked - "It'd take a real load off of us.'
But considering the technical difficulties Fogerson has encountered in a full laboratory with a highly trained staff, PharmChem workers are skeptical of the guy sitting in his back yard with a chemistry set.
PharmChem has covered every part of the drug analysis field from detecting strychnine in amphetamines (two year ago a cargo shipment of strychnine filled tabs hit the streets of the Bay Area) to informing blighted users that the pills they shelled out for were nothing more than Aspirin laced with caffeine. The foundation hasn't had any trouble from the post offices, because, as Kotecki says, the program is too humanitarian for anyone to hinder.
Kotecki, who has worked in the drug abuse treatment field for a number of years, joined PharmChem in January.
"Some people might be sustaining permanent lung damage that they're not aware of. One doctor said that the condition could be similar to emphysema."
Good evening. PharmChem.
Even with the intensity of the work load, PharmChem's problems are not without a lighter side.
Kotecki cites the example of the eastern radio announcer who asked him in an interview if there were any exercises a Paraquat contamination victim could do to overcome irreversible lung damage. Kotecki was tempted to tell the interviewer that 15 leg lifts and a couple of sit-ups would do it. "But," he says, "I told her that no, irreversible is pretty irreversible." Paraquat humor, says Kotecki is only funny when you're too tired not to laugh at it.