ST. LOUIS -- Last month, Saint Louis University toxicology director Anthony Scalzo, M.D., took center stage at a press conference convened by the U.S. Attorney's office to announce the arrest of 28 people on charges related to synthetic drugs.
Anthony Scalzo, M.D., talks to two medical school students. Photo by Curt Dennison
"I was just doing my job, detecting trends in drug exposures and trying to help prevent injury to youth and young adults. I was surprised that some of our synthetic drug exposures were in 40- to 60-year olds," Scalzo said.
Back in 2010, he had noticed a spike in a collection of potentially deadly symptoms — hallucinations, agitation, fast heart beat and dangerously high blood pressure — reported by patients' families and emergency department physicians who contacted the Missouri Poison Center, where he served as medical director.
He discovered these patients — and others reporting similar symptoms around the country — had smoked a substance that masqueraded as synthetic marijuana, known as K2 and Spice. Shortly after the synthetic marijuana cases emerged came the scourge of synthetic amphetamines, which were sold as "bath salts."
Scalzo contacted SLU colleague Christopher Long, Ph.D., director of forensic toxicology, who analyzed K2 packets and found they contained synthetic cannabinoids, chemicals in fake marijuana. Long also detected MDPV (methylenedioxypyrovalerone), a toxic methamphetamine-like substance in the samples from patients who had ingested bath salts.
A SLUCare pediatrician at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center, Scalzo followed trends on these dangerous synthetic drugs, which were legal then, and advocated banning them.
He became a national expert on synthetic drugs, after first notifying the U.S. Centers for Disease Control of the K2 cases in February 2010, which alerted the country and other toxicologists to the trend. Scalzo also communicated with the Drug Enforcement Administration about the danger these drugs posed to people who mistakenly believed they were safe.
"I was contacted by DEA field agents and they informed me of sales in shops in our area, all legal at the time. One agent told me in March 2010 that a store owner was making $7,000 a day on the sale of K2. I knew the dangers of the product well by then and it upset me that profit was occurring at the expense of children and young adults' health and lives."
Scalzo's advocacy efforts have paid dividends. He was credited last month with raising awareness of the health dangers of these synthetic drugs, which set the wheels in motion for their eventual ban, making related activities a crime. See the story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
"I wanted to do what pediatricians are trained to do — prevent illness and injury. My expertise in pediatrics, emergency medicine and toxicology helped me understand the issues and problems with these drugs," he said.
Since first discovering the dangers of K2 in 2010, Scalzo did numerous interviews with national and local reporters in an attempt to alert people to what synthetic drugs do to young people. CASE (the Council for Advancement and Support of Education) district VI recognized the publicity with its gold award.
He also lobbied locally and nationally, achieving powerful results. For instance, minutes after his testimony on K2 at a St. Charles County Council meeting, councilmen banned the sale of the product. He wrote letters to the U.S. Senate Drug Caucus and campaigned tirelessly to draw awareness to a previously hidden danger. Congress banned the drugs two years ago.
"The connections through personal e-mails, phone calls, colleagues contacting other agencies that they thought I could provide valuable insight into the problem and the media helped to raise the awareness and put us on the map of first alerting the nation to this problem," Scalzo said.
Through early networking, he befriended the parents of an 18-year-old Iowa student who died after trying K2. David Rozga and his friends had been told by some college students that it was safe, natural and legal. The Rozga's loss, chronicled on their website inspired Scalzo to continue working to protect others from K2.
"I dedicated many academic lectures as well as talks and testimony to this wonderful, bright and happy young man. His parents are heroes in my eyes — working in Iowa and nationally with Congress to raise awareness of synthetics like K2 and their testimony was crucial," Scalzo said.
"This family's tragedy and courage has emboldened me to this mission. In the Jesuit tradition, I grew up serving others. The mission, I suppose, it's in my genes."