New wave of untested synthetic drugs: easy to get, deceptively dangerousLegislation being considered in the Minnesota House and Senate would make 16 chemicals found in synthetic marijuana illegal, as well as those in bath salts and the 2C family,
By: Sarah Horner, St. Paul Pioneer Press / MCT
His friends told him the high was like cocaine.
"They said it gave you energy, just makes you want to go," said Justin, a student at Harmony Learning Center, an alternative high school in the north metro area.
The 18-year-old wanted to see for himself. About two weeks ago, he and a couple of friends went to a smoke shop in Oakdale and paid $25 for a half-gram of so-called "bath salts," a new synthetic drug similar to cocaine and other stimulants.
After snorting a small line of the white powder in a nearby parking lot, Justin started to feel jittery.
"Like you could run a marathon," Justin said. He liked the high for a few hours. Then he came down.
"Your head hurts, and you're all emotional ... and you feel like a fiend because you want more," Justin said. "It just sucks."
A year ago, Justin - whose school requested his last name not be used - said he hadn't even heard of bath salts. Now he says he knows maybe six people who have tried them.
Following in the footsteps of synthetic marijuana, which rose to national attention last year, bath salts are the latest choice in a wave of designer drugs causing concern. Meant to mimic the effects of other, illegal drugs, they are classified into three synthetic categories: cannabinoids, hallucinogens and stimulants.
And though some are illegal, authorities say, many can be easily bought online and at local head shops, stores that often sell paraphernalia associated with drugs.
"Bath salts" - not to be confused with those used to soften water - are sold under names such as Ivory Wave or Vanilla Sky and often tagged "not for human consumption." They and other new synthetic drugs have sent dozens of users to emergency rooms across the state and thousands across the country.
Minnesota lawmakers are scrambling to stop the spread. Their efforts gained new vigor after Trevor Robinson, a 19-year-old from Coon Rapids, died after ingesting the synthetic hallucinogen 2C-E at a March 17 party in Blaine.
"These (chemicals) were never tested on humans. ... There is no quality-control mechanism," said Dan Moren, assistant special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Agency's local office. "It's a Russian roulette game."
Use not rampant
Reports of use of the chemicals started popping up in poison-control centers nationwide a couple of years ago and quickly spiked. Treatment centers and even schools are noticing the trend locally.
According to Minnesota Poison Control officials:
_There were no fake-marijuana cases reported in the state in 2009; 89 cases were reported the next year.
_Reports to poison centers of the use of synthetic hallucinogens (the 2C family) have risen from one in 2009 to 12 so far this year.
_And reports of bath salts use jumped from three cases in 2010 to 25 so far this year.
The actual number of those trying the drugs is likely much larger, said Debbie Anderson, executive director of the Minnesota Poison Control System.
"Obviously, anybody using these ... doesn't say, 'I have to report this,' " she said. The figures rely heavily on those that wind up needing medical attention.
Alcohol, marijuana and prescription drugs continue to be the biggest problems for abusers, said Dr. Joseph Lee, medical director for youth and families at Hazelden, the drug and alcohol treatment and research center in Center City, Minn. Yet, of the 300 new patients seeking help from Lee's program
A packet of incense, containing "herbal and synthetic extracts," according to the package, was photographed on Thursday September 16, 2010. The product is also known as (but not sold as) "synthetic marijuana." (Pioneer Press: Richard Marshall) (Richard Marshall)
this year, about 20 percent admitted to experimenting with designer drugs, namely synthetic pot.
Users of synthetic drugs tend to be between ages 18 to 30. But drug counselors in the AnokaHennepin and North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale school districts said they are hearing about the drugs from their students.
Still, data doesn't suggest rampant abuse, said Carol Falkowski, drug-abuse strategy officer with the Minnesota Department of Human Services.
"There are groups and clusters of (people) using these ... but they are still relatively small pockets," Falkowski said.
Drug experts say synthetic drugs are easy to get and hard to detect and appear, falsely, to be safe, all of which likely fuel the increase in their use.
Many of the new drugs don't show up on standard drug tests, Lee said. That is a draw to people with prior legal problems -- "people undergoing testing for another drug addiction," Lee said.
Synthetic drugs are also easy to get, students have told David Ettesvold, an alcohol and drug counselor at Harmony.
"They just have to hop online or go to their favorite head shop," he said.
That accessibility, along with their perceived legal status, might lead some to try the drugs who otherwise might not, Moren said.
"You don't have to walk down a dark alley to get these drugs ... so I think some people are lulled into a false sense of security," Moren said.
The Internet, experts say, might be the biggest factor.
"You have social media sites, chat rooms, websites ... playing a significant role in furthering the distribution of these drugs," Moren said. "In years past ... you didn't have that."
Side effects unknown
There are no warning labels detailing side effects and dangers of synthetic drugs. Most users have no idea what they are ingesting or what it will do to them.
One student at Harmony started losing his hair after using fake marijuana and other drugs.
"He started wearing a hat to hide the blotches of bare skin. ... (Doctors) associated the hair loss with synthetic marijuana," Ettesvold said.
Other reported side effects -- depending on the synthetic drug -- include experiences of psychosis, irritability, extreme paranoia or agitation, strong hallucinations, loss of feeling in the lower extremities, violent behavior, and in rarer cases, comas, seizures or even death, drug experts say.
"These chemicals aren't produced by regulated companies, so you never really know what you're taking," Hazelden's Lee said. That uncertainty makes it difficult for users to understand proper dosage and how the drugs may interact with medications they're taking, he said.
Most of the drugs come from China and Europe, the DEA's Moren said. And their makers don't research the chemicals or test their effects on humans before selling them.
"It's a ticking time bomb," Moren said. "As a parent, it scares the hell out of me."
Trying to combat the spread of these drugs has proved tricky. Just as quickly as lawmakers ban a chemical, the drugmakers tweak their formula to circumvent it.
The DEA, for example, recently banned five chemicals in synthetic marijuana on an emergency basis. Already, manufacturers are marketing new versions as "completely legal."
None of the new drugs are listed as controlled substances in Minnesota, something legislators are working to change. Such a move would give local authorities more control in situations where federal law may fall short, said Cody Wiberg, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy, which is charged with adding controlled substances to the state list.
Other than the five chemicals banned for synthetic marijuana, none of the other new designer drugs is listed as a federally controlled substance. But authorities say prosecutions in cases involving some of them could be sought under the federal Analogue Act, which says that if a substance is similar enough to a particular illegal substance, it can be treated the same under the law when intended for human consumption.
The Anoka County attorney's office charged Timothy Lamere, 21, of Blaine with unintentional third-degree murder for allegedly possessing and distributing 2C-E to Robinson, who died after overdosing on the drug. Though not listed as a controlled substance, 2C-E is said to be an isomer of 2C-B, which is illegal.
Legislation being considered in the Minnesota House and Senate would make 16 chemicals found in synthetic marijuana illegal, as well as those in bath salts and the 2C family, Wiberg said. The legislation also would include language similar to the federal Analogue Act to make it harder for makers to push slightly altered versions of drugs.
The legislation would make the sale and use of designer drugs illegal, Wiberg said. The penalty would depend on the drug: Selling synthetic marijuana would be a gross misdemeanor; selling bath salts and 2C drugs would be a felony.
Not everybody thinks the state should pass legislation.
Attorney Marc Kurzman, who is representing two Minnesota head shops and a Midwest botanical manufacturer in a suit challenging the DEA's recent synthetic-drug decision, said there is no scientific evidence to suggest the five chemicals found in synthetic pot and now deemed illegal produce harmful effects or that they even get someone high.
He added that increased usage reports from poison-control centers are not based on blood tests that verify the actual drug ingested.
"I don't know about you, but I want a government that is going to pay attention to science and not what politics dictate," Kurzman said.
He said Minnesota would be ill-advised to include a ban on synthetic marijuana in the same bill as bath salts, which Kurzman said have proved to be harmful.
Forty states have either taken action against synthetic marijuana or have legislation pending, according to the National Conference of State Legislators. At least 24 states have either passed or are considering legislation to combat bath salts.
Regardless of the legal status of the drugs, Moren said, society needs to do a better job hammering home that Internet sales do not equal safe when it comes to chemicals.
Messaging is key, the state's Falkowski said. And it should come from as many sources as possible.
"Too often, parents think it's the school's job. Schools think it's the parents' job. And communities think they do not play a role," she said.
Anoka-Hennepin schools have ordered posters warning about the designer drugs, and school counselors say they are talking about their effects with students.
Ettesvold said some Harmony students are attaching a stigma to the drugs.
Justin, who is part of a chemical-free group at the school, admitted to trying bath salts twice but said he wouldn't do them again.
"It's a dirty drug."
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.