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Despite Crackdown, Drug 'Cat' Is Spreading Across Midwest


MARQUETTE, Mich. — For five years now, in apartments and college dormitories, in the back seats of cars, in hunting cabins nestled in the birch and maple stands of the north woods, the drug methcathinone has been cooking throughout Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

"Cat," as it is commonly called, is a chemical cousin of both methamphetamine and the Somali khat plant and is easy to make from readily available ingredients that range from paint thinner to lye. It is cheap. It is powerful, pleasurable and intensely habit-forming. It is dangerous, leading to paranoia, extreme weight loss, bloody noses and loss of sleep.

After the seizure of 34 cat labs, authorities here say they believe that they are slowing an epidemic of abuse that has overwhelmed emergency rooms and addiction centers on this isthmus dividing Lake Michigan and Lake Superior.

Yet despite--or perhaps because of--the crackdown here in cat's cradle, the drug is now spreading through the Midwest and beyond. The recipe has been passed along from friend to friend, sold for thousands of dollars, published in a book and distributed on the Internet computer network.

There have been other so-called designer drugs in the past, but law enforcement officials find cat especially worrisome because it is so simple to put together and so similar to methamphetamine and cocaine in its effects. "This is nasty stuff," said Phil Streicher, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration investigator based here.

Another 31 clandestine labs in nine other states have now been closed down, with the largest number clustered in Indiana and Wisconsin. The drug has made scattered appearances as far afield as Washington state, Colorado, Montana, Idaho and Virginia.

In nearly every case, the suspects have ties to the Upper Peninsula. But last week federal agents discovered a cat lab in Wichita, Kan., when they raided a house where they thought methamphetamine was being made. The resident drug-maker learned the recipe from a book that can be ordered through a post office box in Washington state.

The formula is also reaching a potential audience of millions through the Internet. The recipe has been distributed via computer for more than a year, and there is a clear demand for it. E-mail queries were posted last week.

"BE CAREFUL," warned one anonymous computer file containing detailed cat-making instructions. "Don't introduce this stuff to kids or sell it, or I will personally hunt you down."

The federal government plans to place controls on the sale of ephedrine, a key ingredient in both cat and methamphetamine. Effective Nov. 10, sellers of ephedrine in chemical form will be required to register with the DEA and record buyers' names and addresses. Sales of ephedrine tablets, marketed as a diet aid and stimulant and available by mail-order, at truck stops and at health food stores, are expected to face similar restrictions by early next year.

But even that change may not pose an obstacle to cat's spread. Ephedrine will be more difficult to get, but it will not be banned. It is being smuggled across the Mexican border as well.

And an Internet message advises that an over-the-counter cold medicine containing a related chemical is one potential alternative ephedrine source. A DEA pharmacologist confirmed the tip's accuracy.

Although the DEA in theory could place controls on such medicines, "it would be difficult," said Gene R. Haislip, the agency's deputy assistant administrator. "I don't look forward to having to do it."

Cat is widely abused in Russia, where it is known as "jeff," "mulka" or "ephedrone." But its emergence as a recreational drug in the United States apparently began with a pharmaceutical company employee who was ordered to destroy old batches of substances that never were marketed, according to John Boyer, a DEA intelligence analyst based in Detroit. One of the substances was methcathinone, which was considered for production in the 1950s to treat depression but was shelved because of its severe side effects.

But in 1989 the employee allegedly brought the stuff to parties with friends from the University of Michigan. They figured out how to duplicate cat. The drug didn't catch on in Ann Arbor. "It would be hard to go to classes on cat," Boyer theorized.

But one of the students, Philip Pavlik, dropped out and moved home to Marquette, a college town on Lake Superior's shores with a population of about 22,000 people. He already had been giving cat samples to his younger brother, Andrew, who shared it with his friends. Together, the Pavliks started throwing cat parties.

"They have no idea and will not accept what a Pandora's box they opened," Streicher said.

Dean Grimes, who was a tavern cook, had known the Pavliks in high school. Soon he was an assistant during cat-making sessions.

Grimes had cheated his way through high school chemistry, but he learned the cat process well enough to start hosting parties in his own apartment.

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