CINCINNATI — Aaron Perry was 26 when he died after an overdose in a porta-potty outside Paul Brown Stadium last December.
Perry had completed a six-month program for addiction in September and had been passing his drug tests, according to his mom, Colleen Perry.
“If he failed, he would be arrested,” she said.
Based on those drug tests, family members believed Aaron hadn’t been using heroin in the months before his death.
But when they retrieved Aaron’s belongings from the funeral home, they found a bottle of fake urine among them. Colleen also learned that three of Aaron’s drug tests in Butler County had yielded inconclusive results.
“So that’s when it came clear to me that (Aaron was) not passing this on (his) own,” she said.
For those like Aaron, there are ways to try to cheat the drug testing system by using synthetic urine or substances that mask the drugs in their real urine.
Here in a region that is in the midst of a massive heroin and fentanyl epidemic, one of the synthetic urine manufacturers is a local company.
And while the local company says its products are only designed for nicotine tests, one local doctor said these sorts of products are helping fuel addiction — and if those addictions continue or grow stronger, that's leading to deaths.
At least 11 states have banned the sale of synthetic urine. In Kentucky, it is illegal to manufacture, market or distribute “any product which is intended to defraud a test designed to detect the presence of alcohol or a controlled substance."
Ohio has laws banning the use of synthetic urine to pass drug tests, but that isn't preventing the product from being sold here.
Spectrum Labs makes products like Urine Luck detoxifying agent, Absolute Detox drinks and Quick Fix synthetic urine.
Spectrum Labs owner Matt Stephens said his company's products are only designed to pass tests for nicotine products. However, The Wall Street Journal reported in 2002 that Stephens told the paper Spectrum’s products mask marijuana use because most of the company's customers smoke pot.
“If it works on marijuana, it will work on everything else,” Stephens told the Wall Street Journal.
And merchants selling Spectrum’s products, like its synthetic urine, don’t mind advertising them for use in passing drug tests. Another local business, 513 Ventures, which operates the website Detox For Less, sells Spectrum’s Quick Fix with a “200 percent money back guarantee” that it will pass a drug test.
A look back at Spectrum Labs’ website via archive.org shows it was making a similar guarantee to “pass any drug test" in the past.
Spectrum amended the guarantee on its website sometime in 2005, changing the claim from “drug test” to “nicotine test.”
9 On Your Side's I-Team purchased synthetic urine. A test of the synthetic urine showed negative results for opiates, methadone, oxycodone, MDMA, PCP and amphetamine.
Dr. Mike Kalfas, a local family physician and addiction specialist, said it is “reprehensible” that local companies are selling synthetic urine, which could be used to help people pass drug tests.
“If people are successful in fooling me, then their addiction progresses further. They get into more trouble. They end up dead,” Kalfas said. “The guy selling them the urine — manufacturing the urine and selling the urine — is helping them die.”
Kalfas said he believed it should be illegal to sell these products.
“There’s no good coming from that,” he said. “Somebody is making a dollar. They are basically henchmen for the drug dealers.”
In Hamilton County alone, the probation department performs about 50,000 drug tests each year, nearly a fifth of which return positive results for one or more drugs.
The consequences of testing positive vary on a case-by-case basis, according to officials with several Tri-State probation departments. A first-time positive test usually will result in sanctions and required treatment. Continued use will result in a violation and possible jail time.
However, trying to cheat a court-required urine test can mean bigger trouble for anyone caught doing it, defense attorney Mark Krumbein said. Anyone caught cheating could face charges of fraud, tampering with evidence or violating a court order.
“If you do cheat and get caught, that could violate your probation, and off to prison you go,” he said.
County probation departments typically require those being tested to remove their coats and leave any containers outside the restroom. Monitoring officers observe the urine leaving the body and entering the specimen container, and can pat down someone submitting a urine sample if they suspect anything.
Krumbein said companies can get away with products like synthetic urine because they fall under a gray area thanks to possible legitimate uses such as passing nicotene tests.
Aaron Perry was passing his drug tests, but an autopsy revealed that he died from a fentanyl overdose. Fentanyl is an opiate similar to heroin or morphine, but much more powerful. Opiates like heroin and fentanyl can show up on drug tests, but they typically leave a person's system much faster than other drugs like marijuana.
Overdoses caused by fentanyl use are on the rise.
There was a 2,000 percent increase in fentanyl-related deaths across Ohio between January 2013 and March 2015. In Ripley County, Indiana, the coroner had to request additional funds from county leaders to cover the costs of autopsies for those who died from overdoses there. Just this week, Hamilton County Coroner Dr. Lakshmi Sammarco and Sheriff Jim Neil released a video shown to heroin addicts leaving the jail, to remind the exiting inmates that their “tolerance” levels had dropped because of detoxing while in jail.
Colleen Perry lamented that Aaron had never been caught during a drug test.
“At least we would have known then, that him telling us he was clean, clean, clean — that he really wasn’t, and we could have gotten him the help sooner,” Colleen Perry said.
Learning that local companies were selling tools that could be used to fake drug test results just made the loss worse, she said.
“It breaks my heart that it’s right here in Cincinnati, where we had a huge problem — with Northern Kentucky and Indiana, the whole Tri-State area — that we’re just helping these addicts pass these drug tests,” she said.