MARQUETTE, Mich. — Michigan's Upper Peninsula, a ruggedly beautiful land where deer outnumber people, is the unlikely setting of a battle to head off another nationwide drug epidemic.
In dense hardwood forests and sleepy villages nestled on Great Lakes shores, criminals are manufacturing and peddling methcathinone, an amphetamine with the street name "cat."
The chunky, off-white powder somewhat resembles crack cocaine in appearance and potency. Made in crude laboratories from easily obtained ingredients such as drain cleaner and Epsom salts, it can be inhaled, smoked or watered down and injected.
The drug has been "spreading like wildfire" in the Upper Peninsula since the first arrests two years ago, said John Smietanka, U.S. attorney for Michigan's western district. He believes it will go farther.
"Drugs don't stop at geographic boundaries, any more than shipping and commerce and currency," he said.
"We're very concerned. This drug does have the potential to be a national problem," said James Tolliver, a pharmacologist with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Washington.
There have been busts across the border in northern Wisconsin and at least one in Washington state, which police say was probably an isolated case.
Like its namesake feline stalking a mouse, cat crept into view so stealthily that it took the Michigan Legislature until this spring to enact a state law against it. Previously, charges were brought under federal law.
Where did it all start? Police believe a drug abuser in Ann Arbor stumbled across the recipe while researching amphetamines. He passed it to a student at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, who began manufacturing cat in his apartment.
An informant tipped police, who raided the makeshift lab in 1991. But by then others were making methcathinone.
Cat ingredients vary somewhat but can include battery acid, drain cleaner, paint thinner and lye. A key component is ephedrine, a chemical that can be mail-ordered or derived from a particular over-the-counter stimulant.
Lab equipment is equally commonplace: glass jars, rubber tubing, a burner. The "cooking" takes about four hours. Because it's so simple, it can be done almost anywhere.
"We're finding fragmented labs out in the woods, just like in the old moonshine days," said Marquette County Sheriff Joseph Maino.
A kilogram costs about $500 to make but has a street value of $15,000.
"I'm afraid the cocaine and LSD groups will try to get their hands on the recipe," Maino said.
Another concern is the environmental damage caused by abandoned cat labs, which police describe as miniature toxic waste dumps. Cleaning up one lab costs about $10,000, Maino said.
The drug itself isn't new. Soviet chemical companies are believed to have developed it in the 1930s to treat depression, said Don Simila, supervisor of addiction rehabilitation at Marquette General Hospital. It was outlawed there but remains popular with Russian drug users.
Bad side effects led Western scientists to abandon studies of methcathinone as a possible asthma treatment, said Simila, who has studied the drug and counseled addicts.
"Larry," 25, a rehabilitated addict who spoke on condition that his real name not be used, said he quickly dropped cocaine after boyhood pals introduced him to cat.
"It's more powerful and a lot cheaper," said the unemployed laborer, who awaits sentencing on a guilty plea of manufacturing the drug. "I got a speedish effect, a big rush, right from my first time. If you were tired and you did some, it would pick you right up."
He paid about $20 per gram before getting the recipe and making his own, although Lt. Richard Killips of the Michigan State Police says most cat sells for $75 to $100. Cocaine brings $125 to $150 per gram in the Upper Peninsula, he said.
It took Larry about a month to get hooked.
Within a year he was mixing batches and staying high for up to five days at a time, often forgetting to eat. He'd then "crash" and sleep for long periods, awaking depressed and craving more cat.
His weight fell from 165 pounds to 145. His nose bled from snorting the drug. His skin was dry and dotted with sores; his perspiration reeked of chemicals.
Unable to think clearly, he did little work and could not remember to pay the bills.
"I spent my time watching TV, driving around town. . . . I'd sit for hours playing with the drugs, chopping 'em up, putting it in different containers. Just something to do."
So far, authorities have raided 29 labs in the Upper Peninsula and northern Wisconsin and have charged 41 people, Killips said.
A year ago, Larry's use of the drug stopped abruptly when police knocked at his door.
Bad luck, he thought then. Now, he says his arrest saved his life.