SAN JOSE — Federal and state health authorities on Monday launched a program to test "designer" street drugs from anonymous donors to detect a potent chemical that leaves some users with irreversible Parkinson's disease.
An estimated 300 Californians have been exposed to MPTP, a legal "designer drug" whose structure is nearly identical to Demerol, said Chauncey L. Veatch III, director of the state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs.
The drug, which is produced by one or more underground chemists who escape the law by slightly altering its molecular structure, is said to produce the high of heroin. It is one of a number of "designer drugs," so called because chemists custom-design the substance.
Seven Northern Californians have been hospitalized with advanced Parkinson's disease and another 30 are beginning to exhibit early symptoms after having injected the synthetic drug, Veatch told reporters.
He and other health officials said they are concerned that MPTP usage could reach epidemic proportions in California, where officials said one-fifth of the nation's heroin addicts live.
The health officials announced a two-month, $10,000 program that allows people to anonymously send small samples of their drugs to be tested for the presence of MPTP.
Dr. James Ruttenber of the federal Centers for Disease Control said drug users can mail aspirin-sized samples to the Santa Clara County Health Department in San Jose, where the test will be performed "with no strings attached."
"We will not be releasing this information except to public health officials," he said. "We have no ties to law enforcement."
Those wanting their drugs tested would write a five-letter code on the outside of envelopes containing the samples. They could learn the results in two weeks by calling a special hot line telephone number.
Users have reported loss of memory, a burning sensation produced immediately after injection, excessive saliva or drooling, jerking of the arms and legs and excessive sweating.