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A Fatal Attempt to Outsmart Addiction

The mother of Carrie John—a post-doctorate substance-abuse researcher, whose IV drug-related death made headlines—is still trying to untangle her tragedy. How could somebody so well-informed succumb?

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Learning offers little protection from addiction. Photo via

By Jennifer Matesa

05/07/12

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Marianne Warnes thinks her daughter shot bad drugs that September day in 2009 only because she wanted to please her boyfriend.

Her elder daughter, 29-year-old Carrie John, a University of Maryland post-doctorate research fellow in the science of substance abuse, banged a fake drug that she thought was buprenorphine—actually an unknown contaminant—which her fiancé had ordered from an East Asian online pharmacy. She died of anaphylactic shock before his eyes in her Baltimore rowhouse.

Warnes never suspected that her daughter was using drugs; Carrie didn’t fit the stereotypical image of an IV drug-user.

The story went national and 54-year-old Warnes was bombarded with emails and phone calls from news outlets; her grief prevented her from answering most of them. She only recently decided that she wanted to talk publicly about her daughter—and she approached The Fix.

Warnes never suspected that her daughter was using drugs; Carrie didn’t fit any of the stereotypical images of IV drug-users. She made her home in Baltimore's historic Ridgely’s Delight district, adjacent to the University of Maryland campus. And Carrie was making a name for herself in the university's medical school through her research on the neurological effects of opioids, cocaine and marijuana.

How could a highly-educated woman who knew so much about addictive drugs get caught up in such a lethal activity? “I thought she was the only one,” says Warnes.

But many high-fliers are caught up in addiction—either their own or others’. Since her daughter’s death, Warnes has received dozens of emails from drug-users whose resumés resemble her daughter’s. “They’re attorneys, bankers, Wall Street-types,” she says. “They have master’s degrees and PhDs. They say, ‘I just want you to know she’s not the only one.’”

In her lab “Carrie used cocaine all the time,” Warnes says. “She gave it to her mice and rats.” And in her off-hours, increasingly in the three months before she died, she used drugs at home.

What Carrie’s family and friends didn't know is that her fiancé, Clinton McCracken—a brilliant researcher who worked alongside Carrie in her lab—didn’t just like to study drugs of addiction at work. He also liked to smoke and shoot them at home. And he was convinced, as he himself wrote in an essay in the Journal of the American Medical Association, that his scientific knowledge about drugs would protect him from harm. But neither his essay—nor any of the national news reports that ran after Carrie died—indicated how close to death he and Carrie repeatedly and intentionally brought themselves, all in search of a greater high.

“He told me a couple of times that they decided to buy [opioid] drugs from overseas and inject them until they got higher and higher, to the point where they were ready to die,” Warnes. “And then the other would inject Narcan to reverse the effects.” The primary effect of opioid overdose is respiratory depression.

“We talk about the ‘insanity’ of addiction,” says Marvin D. Seppala, MD, chief medical officer of Hazelden treatment center, which is headquartered in Center City, Minnesota. “To me, this is a great example of it—to think that we can cheat death in the midst of an attempt to get as high as possible. It reminds me of that old saying about heroin—‘chasing the dragon.’ People try to get back to the feeling of that first high. Of course, it never works.”

“We see a lot of professional people who struggle with drug addiction and in particular IV drug abuse,” says Paul Hokemeyer, Ph.D., an addictions therapist at the Caron Treatment Center’s New York City offices, and a contributor to the Dr. Oz Show and The Fix. “Typically these men and women begin using prescription drugs and then find themselves addicted and out of control.”

Carrie and her fiancé had managed to keep their drug use entirely hidden from friends and family. McCracken’s lawyer has denied his client was an addict; nevertheless, McCracken had been ordering morphine, OxyContin and buprenorphine from overseas online pharmacies for three years. And he had established a virtual marijuana farm at Carrie’s house.

When he moved in, three months before she died, he brought along his considerable gear, which police found at Carrie’s house after her death. The police report states that they found “an overpowering odor of hydro-marijuana,” caused by “huge gardens” of pot plants growing on every floor of the house—basement included—along with intricate lighting and air-circulation systems, and more than 20 bongs “in all shapes and sizes.” The house reportedly had garbage “thrown about everywhere,” and the police found pills stashed in the fridge, in kitchen cupboards and in Carrie’s purses.

“The guy with the drugs moves in and just takes over,” Warnes says of the way Carrie’s home was rapidly transformed into a drug factory. “It was like, ‘Here’s [the marijuana plants], and here’s how we’re going to water them, and here’s how we’re going to control the smell.’ So suddenly her little place is no longer her little place.”

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