Photo by David Grace.
Local law enforcement are in the early stages of their battle against a new, potent street drug, saying it’s highly addictive and leaves many users with extreme paranoia.
Over the past two months, Kingsport Police Department and the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office have had approximately 20 incidents each related to “gravel.” Early lab results reveal the rock-like substance contains alpha-Pyrrolidinopentiophenone, a synthetic stimulant acting on the cardiovascular and central nervous system.
Though ingested similarly to the synthetic drug bath salts, through smoking or injection, the alpha PVP contained in gravel is previously unseen in our region.
“We’re not seeing the crazy rages (like with bath salts), but the paranoia is the worst we’ve seen from any drugs,” said KPD Vice Detective Nathan Elliott. “And the effects on the body, (the user’s) appearance, those are the worst. We don’t know if they’ll have cancer in five years, or fall over dead.”
SCSO Public Information Officer Leslie Earhart says much of the gravel seized in the county has been mixed with other drugs, such as Klonopin or meth. Some samples even tested positive for ammonia nitrate, a highly flammable chemical compound often found in fertilizer.
“Gravel can potentially be even more dangerous than the synthetic drugs we were dealing with last year, mainly because you do not know for sure what other drugs have been mixed with the PVP,” said Earhart. “There have been reports of dealers trying to pass straight ammonia nitrate off as gravel.”
Gravel runs between $80 and $200 a gram, according to police, with Earhart attributing the fluctuation to a batch’s purity; i.e., has it been cut with other drugs, or is it straight alpha-PVP.
Kingsport police say the variation in price is a classic example of drug peddlers’ power over their victims.
“They’re getting people hooked on it, then raise their price,” said Elliott. “They get them addicted in just a few months rather than years.”
“We arrested an attractive girl a while back (with gravel), then saw her a couple months later on a driving violation. She looked like she’d been smoking meth for five years.”
Though in the infancy of their dealings with the drug, law enforcement officials say extreme paranoia is a trademark tendency: pointing to multiple cases as illustration.
An SCSO police report from August relays how deputies responded to an assault at a Kingsport apartment. A man — whose girlfriend claimed was “on gravel and acting strange” — became enraged with her for “placing surveillance equipment in all the electrical appliances.”
In another Kingsport assault, deputies arrested a man who had allegedly been doing gravel while left to care for his 3-year-old son. When his wife returned home he attacked, accusing her of sleeping with his best friend.
Police were recently called to a residential street in Kingsport, where two neighbors reported an unknown, shirtless man “banging” on doors and running through yards.
While searching the area officers heard a noise in a tree, looked up and spotted the suspect crouched on a limb. He jumped down and ran away, being taken into custody when he decided to lay down in a yard, on his own volition, and “roll around in the grass.”
A particularly troubling trend among a few gravel suspects, according to Elliott, is that they, “feel no pain.”
He says one man arrested at a West Stone Drive motel became combative with police. Due to him seeming impervious to multiple pressure point techniques applied by police, a lengthy struggle ensued before he was taken into custody.
Curbing the use of bath salts over the past few years proved a struggle for both police and legislators. But those powdery, synthetic drugs were being purchased at specialty shops that were, at the time, skirting around loose laws related to their sale, providing authorities with a focal point for their efforts.
That’s not the case with gravel.
Kingsport and Sullivan County police say the drug’s key ingredient is being purchased in large quantities from overseas. Local dealers then add other drugs or ammonia to make their own batches of the rock-like substance.
Kingsport police have seized some bags of the pure alpha-PVP, according to Elliott, but they display no maker’s mark and are simply labeled “plant fertilizer.”
“This is totally coming in as large amounts,” he said. “They’re then breaking them out in little corner baggies, like crack.”
As is the case with many illicit drugs, Kingsport police say the rising prevalence of gravel will likely contribute to an increase in property crime.
Elliott reports one suspected gravel dealer they arrested had “multiple” iPads and flat screen TVs. All the electronics are suspected to have been stolen by customers, then exchanged as payment for the drug.
Due to many users shooting up gravel, there is also a concern for the transfer of disease through shared needles.
“There’s horror stories we’re hearing about this stuff,” Elliott said. “It’s worse than bath salts, in relation to women waking up in a room surrounded by men, not knowing what happened.”
Both Sullivan County and Kingsport police say they are working diligently to identify local dealers and suppliers, with the recent surge in gravel’s use consuming much of their vice officers’ time.