Editor's Note: This is the second in a series on synthetic marijuana use in Elkhart County.
GOSHEN — Mark Hochstetler switched from smoking marijuana to smoking synthetic marijuana four years ago.
“You could get it at all the head shops and it wasn't on the drug tests at work release,” the 33-year-old Goshen resident said.
He said he smoked the drug, made of a mixture of dried herbs sprayed with chemicals, “all day every day.”
Synthetic marijuana, unlike regular marijuana, is highly addictive.
“I was hooked pretty bad,” Mark said. “I'd rather see people smoking pot, to be honest.”
Mark's brother, Kevin, 29, smoked synthetic marijuana after drinking, which caused frightening results, his parents said.
Linda and Calvin Hochstetler say three of their four children have battled serious addictions to drugs or alcohol for most of their lives.
As synthetic marijuana has grown in popularity across the country, former marijuana smokers like Mark and Kevin are switching to the synthetic version. Several variations on the chemical compound used to make the drug have been outlawed at the state and national levels, but manufacturers find loopholes by making small changes to the compounds. The drug produces the same high as the old compound, but the new version is legal.
Kevin is usually a calm, caring person, Linda said.
“When he drinks he gets all depressed and mopey,” she said. “When he drinks and smokes (synthetic marijuana) the demons take over and it turns him into an animal.”
The drug brings on frightening hallucinations and makes the men imagine crazy events, Calvin said.
Kevin thought a woman had broken into his parents' house and awoke him by standing over his bed with a knife. He told his parents he killed the woman in self defense and buried her body at a race track in Chicago. When they attempted to verify the story, Kevin could not find his way to the place he claimed to have buried the body.
While living in Florida near his aunt, Mark and his then-girlfriend were evicted from the home where they had been staying. High on synthetic marijuana, they believed the home's new residents had killed the landlord and buried him in the woods.
They decided to investigate and went to the home with two friends. The group argued with the new residents and left. As they drove away, Mark and his girlfriend realized their friends' car was no longer behind them. They decided the new residents had killed their friends and turned around.
Back at the home, Mark fought again with the new occupants. The police were called and Mark was arrested. In the back of the police car, Mark began to smash his head into the wire barrier between the seats.
He was taken to a psychiatric hospital in Sarasota, Calvin said.
Mark has a long history of drug use. He began smoking cigarettes around age 8 and started drinking alcohol soon after that, stealing tobacco and alcohol from friends' parents. By age 10, he was smoking every day and started smoking marijuana by the time he was 13.
Later he began using cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. On two occasions, he and Kevin nearly blew up their parents' house while manufacturing meth.
The lasting effects of his drug use are evident in his slightly-slurred speech.
He is always moving. As he speaks, his foot bounces nervously and he fidgets with a computer cable on his parents' kitchen table.
“I've always had more of a problem with drugs,” Mark said. “Kevin had a problem with drinking.”
Calvin estimates that Kevin has been arrested for driving while intoxicated 10 or 12 times. His Elkhart County criminal record shows five charges of operating while intoxicated and public intoxication.
He has been in the hospital numerous times with a blood alcohol content high enough to kill him, Calvin said.
“He called from jail and was literally crying, saying, 'I'll never drink again,'” Calvin said. “So I bailed him out in a weak moment and the next weekend he was in the E.R. with a B.A.C. of .522.”
Their children's addictions have taken a heavy financial and emotional toll on the Hochstetlers.
“We should have our house paid off by now,” Linda said.
Instead of paying off their own debts, they have spent thousands of dollars on bail and medical bills for their kids. Because their children move around often, all the bills are sent to the Hochstetlers' home.
On the kitchen counter is a pile of bills for Kevin from IU Health Goshen, Elkhart Radiology and Oaklawn Psychiatric Center, where he has undergone rehab three times.
Calvin estimated Kevin racked up $50,000 in medical expenses in 2012.
“We've worked hard and made a lot of money, but we've lost and spent a lot trying to help them,” Calvin said.
The Hochstetlers can tell dozens of stories about midnight phone calls from jails and hospitals.
Calvin tells each one — car wrecks, overdoses and arrests — with almost no emotion. Each is just one more link in a decades-long chain.
“Kevin's told us, 'I should've been dead a hundred times,'” Calvin said.
Every time the phone rang, he and Linda wondered if this was finally The Call, the one telling them one of their children was dead.
“(The drug use) has just trashed our life,” he said. “We haven't relaxed in 10 or 12 years.”
Cheryl, the Hochstetlers' second child, said she felt like an only child for many years.
“It's lonely,” she said. “They would only call when they needed something.”
“I wondered every day when I'd get the call that one of them was dead,” she said.
Cheryl and her husband, Darren, took in her sister Shannon's children while Shannon, the oldest Hochstetler sibling, was in work release on charges of operating a vehicle while intoxicated.
Shannon has been battling an alcohol addiction for years, her family said.
Cheryl and Darren have three children of their own. Shannon has two.
“We had four teens and a 10-year-old in the house,” she said. “We almost got divorced because of it.”
Shannon's daughter now lives with her paternal grandparents. Her son still lives with Cheryl and Darren.
Just a month ago, Calvin and Linda had given up hope that their sons would ever turn their lives around. Mark had recently been released from jail and was staying at Faith Mission, where the facility's staff is battling an epidemic of synthetic marijuana use. Kevin was behind bars again, this time facing charges of operating a vehicle while intoxicated and battery on an officer.
Now Mark says he has been sober for three months. He has a job wiring electrical components for RVs and attends weekly Bible studies at Zion Missionary Church in Elkhart.
He lives with his parents and doesn't speak to the friends he hung out with when he was doing drugs.
Mark made a decision to stop using drugs after a religious experience in jail, he said. As he tells the story, his voice tightens and he tries to hold back tears. The memories still bring up strong emotions months later.
In late February, Mark decided to return to Elkhart County after living in Florida for several months.
His life seemed to be falling apart, he said. His then-girlfriend in Florida had cheated on him and contracted a sexually-transmitted disease. Mark said he did not contract the disease, but that same weekend, he broke two ribs. Several weeks later, when his ribs had almost healed, he fell from a tree and broke 6 more ribs.
“I couldn't move,” he said. “I couldn't even cough. I was so miserable. I didn't like life.”
He returned to Elkhart on Feb. 28.
“It took him four days to get back from Florida,” his father said. “He was so high he kept getting lost.”
“He called us and he was so high we couldn't understand what he was saying, then he got mad because we couldn't understand him,” Linda said. “I hung up the phone and waited for him to call back sober.”
He eventually arrived in Elkhart County and was arrested 24 hours later for possession of precursors with intent to manufacture a controlled substance, a class-D felony, and dealing in methamphetamine, a class-B felony.
Sitting in a cell at the Elkhart County Jail, Mark thought his life could not get any worse and decided suicide was his best option.
“I knew the second floor (of the jail) was high enough,” he said. “I decided to jump off the second tier.”
Calvin knew Mark was not doing well in jail and asked a friend who runs a weekly Bible study in the jail to check on him.
“Some guy came in and started to talk about God and Jesus,” Mark said of the visit. “I said I didn't believe in God or Jesus and asked why God would do this to me. He said it wasn't God, that it was my own decisions that put me there.”
After the visitor left, Mark flipped through the Bible the man left and decided to try praying.
“I said, 'God, if you're real, show me,'” Mark said. “I opened my eyes and my cell was filled with blinking lights. It was like camera flashes.”
Suddenly, he said, everything made sense. He understood that if he hadn't been facing such serious charges, he would have been released from jail and would have gotten high immediately. The string of misfortunes in Florida and upon his arrival in Indiana had happened for a reason, he said.
“Anything less and I would have been right back out getting high,” he said.
After he “got right with God” things started to improve, Mark said.
The charge of dealing methamphetamine was dropped, his bond was reduced and he was released from jail. He got a job. He has stayed clean.
Calvin and Linda said their sons have promised to turn their lives around many times.
“They all find God in there,” Linda said of her sons' stints in jail. Once they got back on the streets, they would go back to the same friends and same habits.
This time, however, they hope the change will stick.
“You wouldn't believe how different they are now when they're clearheaded versus when they drink and smoke (synthetic marijuana),” Linda said.
“I was never able to stay clean before,” Mark said. “Now the thought of (drugs) ... I'd rather set my hair on fire.”
Although he has received treatment for drug addictions at several facilities throughout Indiana, Mark said religion is the only thing that has helped him fight his addictions.
“All those classes, on addicts it has the opposite effect,” he said. “You know (the instructor) never got high. He learned it all from a book.”
Mark hopes he can use his experience and years of drug use to make a positive change. After accumulating more “clean time” he hopes to go into prison ministry.
“Anyone who knows me knows how bad it was,” he said. “I was sticking needles in my arms for years.”
“I would tell them there's a better way of life,” he said. “All the drugs in the world ain't gonna fix your problems.”
Mark also visits his brother regularly in jail and hopes to help him fight his addictions.
His younger brother into drug use, but “now I can lead him in the opposite direction,” Mark said.
Kevin has been attending a prayer group in jail. Calvin said the group started with three men and has grown to 19.
Both Kevin and Mark are scheduled to appear in Elkhart County Superior Court in July 2013.
In March, the Hochstetlers said they often considered packing up and moving to Florida without leaving a forwarding address or contact information for their children.
“We might still go, but now we'd tell them where we're going,” Linda said with a laugh.
Kevin and Mark have promised their parents dozens of times over the years that they had changed their ways.
This time, Calvin said, it appears that they have.
“I'm already sleeping better than I did a month ago,” Calvin said.
“I'm still cautious, but I do believe him now,” Linda said.