Sam Motsay's place as forward on the Center Grove junior varsity basketball team was on the line.
Friends say he wanted to dip into the world of LSD, a drug of 1970s fame that users say bathes reality in a rainbow of colorful hallucinations.
But Motsay didn't want to jeopardize getting caught or worse — getting kicked off his team. Like every student athlete, new driver, or prom-goer at his school, he faced the possibility of a drug test each day.
Police say the 16-year-old sophomore took the chance anyway one night in May and was found dead hours later next to blotter paper soaked with a synthetic drug called "N-Bomb," often marketed as LSD.
Motsay's death underscores the dangers of widely unknown, hard-to-detect manufactured drugs that experts say students, parents, schools and law enforcement need to learn about as a new school year begins.
"We were trying to get around a system in a way we'd seen so many of our peers do," Motsay's friend Ross Williams said to about 100 people attending a recent forum at Greenwood Christian Church aimed at preventing more deaths.
The drug N-Bomb is part of a series whose names contain numbers and the word NBOMe and is among a host of synthetic drugs, some sold over the counter, that have defied officials' efforts to keep up with them by constantly changing their formulas. N-Bomb, though, is among the deadliest — even though experts say customers who buy it often think it to be harmless, and kids as young as middle school age are taking it.
Johnson County law enforcement officials said they had not heard of N-Bomb until Motsay's death.
Dealers sell N-Bomb or Smiles, like LSD, on blotter paper that sometimes bear playful images such as clowns. Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Dennis Wichern said the drug is 25-60 times stronger than LSD and can cause sweating, increased heart rate and seizures. Wichern's agency blames it for at least 19 deaths of people ages 15 to 29 between March 2012 and last November. There have been two deaths this year in Indiana, Motsay and Fishers teen, John Joseph Romaine, 18, who overdosed from the drug in March.
One dose, Wichern said, can be fatal.
Eludes random drug tests
The difficult-to-detect drugs throw a wrench in random drug testing programs at schools, and parents say more education is needed to stop kids from chasing risky highs to escape getting caught.
Teens sat in silence next to parents who sometimes broke down in tears during the recent forum.
Head bowed, Williams read a letter he wrote for Motsay to the crowd. A letter he said he would have given to his friend if he'd known the drug they took together that night was a "poison."
"You once said to me, you wanted to try this so you wouldn't fail a drug test, because that would ruin your life," he said, pausing every few sentences to take a breath and still the quake in his voice. "It ended up taking your life."
Parents and administrators are split on whether random drug testing is the best way to keep kids alive, especially when many at Center Grove first learned about synthetic drugs after Motsay's death. Center Grove Community Schools Superintendent Richard Arkanoff said educating students is difficult enough.
"It's hard to fight what you don't know," he said.
Drug testing is meant to give students a reason to say no, Arkanoff said, and to fight peer pressure and ward off threats of substance abuse.
More than 90 percent of Center Grove High School's 2,400 students signed up for random drug testing last year, and about 8 percent to 10 percent were picked from that pool to be tested.
But urine tests, used at Center Grove and other Indiana schools, are limited, said Dan Romer, director of the Adolescent Communication Institute at the University of Pennsylvania. Romer researches drug prevention in schools. Center Grove's standard test doesn't check for N-Bomb or for LSD, the substance Williams said he and Motsay thought they were taking.
"When you do these tests, there's always things they can't detect," Romer said. "It's a cat and mouse game. Students figure out when they'll be able to detect drugs. Things they think they will be able to detect, they won't use. It just moves people around."
Rogue chemists constantly change the structure of designer drugs such as NBOMe. Alter a few molecules and the drug can be difficult to identify, making it hard to include in drug tests.
Data from the Indiana Poison Control Center show that from 2010 through June, the center had received 88 calls about Indiana teens reacting to synthetic drugs such as N-Bomb and bath salts. That's about 16 percent of the 522 calls received for those drugs.
Sam's mother Jeanine Motsay, who spoke at the forum, worries that random testing could push students to harder drugs and new designer drugs with unknown consequences.
A University of Michigan study published in 2013 showed lower use of marijuana but an increased use of other illicit drugs at schools with drug tests. Almost 90,000 students were surveyed from 1998-2011 for the study.
"I would hate for students to resort to something more risky," Motsay said.
Education is key
Students who test positive for drugs or alcohol at Center Grove face weeks of suspension from athletics and any other extracurricular and co-curricular clubs. Parents get a phone call, and students must complete some form of counseling or drug treatment. A final clean drug test is necessary to attend prom or get back on the field.
Schools across Indiana, including Noblesville, Avon, and Brownsburg, use similar policies.
But Maj. Aaron Dietz of the Carmel Police Department and Hamilton/Boone County Drug Task Force said concerns that random drug tests could push students to experiment with drugs are overblown. The point, he said, is to deter students.
Most school administrators, police, parents, students and experts do agree that the tests alone won't keep kids safe.
Wichern, of the DEA, said education is key.
"We've got to move away from specific drugs and continue to educate that any drug misused can be abusive, addictive and deadly," Wichern said. "You've got to get a message out there."
Romer advises the opposite. More specifics, he said, are necessary to warn teenagers about potentially fatal drugs.
Jeanine Motsay is pushing for more details at Center Grove, and she's launching samswatch.org as a parent resource site at the end of the month. Arkanoff said the school plans to increase now-monthly communication with parents about substance abuse among students and to create another website hub with up-to-date information for parents.
Motsay said her son's ignorance about synthetic drugs likely played into his death. Maybe, she said, he would be alive if he'd known one dose of N-Bomb could shut down his ability to regulate body temperature, wrack his body with seizures, or kill him.
"I didn't know then what I do now," she said, sorting through the what-ifs in a letter to her son he will never read. "I wish I could've told you."
The Associated Press contributed. Contact Star reporter Summer Ballentine at (317) 444-6125. Follow her on Twitter @esballentine.