The first person who caught my eye when I entered Discontent skateboarding shop was a young boy, not more than 12 years old, standing on a wooden platform with an unstrapped helmet covering most of his dark, shaggy hair and a skateboard resting vertically at his side. Nearby, three teenagers with looks of extreme indifference on their faces fingered through CDs stacked on a small rack next to a skateboarding ramp. Then I noticed two women lingering near the back of the store with their hands in their jacket pockets waiting for a chance to get high.
The women, both appearing to be in their mid-30s, didn’t have to wait long. Within a few minutes, a man working behind the counter stepped away from the cash register and led them to a doorway with a chain hanging from one side to the other. He unhinged the chain, asked for their IDs and led them into a back room lined with mostly empty glass display cases.
(Photo by Matt Bunk) Herbal incense such as White Rabbit and New Dimension can be purchased in Bismarck, despite warnings by medical professionals and law enforcement leaders who say the effects of ingesting the chemicals on synthetic drugs can cause health problems and even death.
The women obviously knew what they wanted. They walked past two display cases, barely noticing the contents: a meager assortment of blown-glass pipes and small, metal objects shaped like cigarettes. Instead, they stopped in front of a case that contained several colorful packages labeled “New Dimension” and “White Rabbit.”
“One gram of the New Dimension,” one of the women said without looking up.
“That’s 20 bucks,” the employee said. “Or you can get three grams for $50.”
The woman shook her head, still looking down at the display case, before following the man to the counter to pay.
After the transaction, I followed the women out of the back room, past several racks holding an assortment of t-shirts, shoes and skateboards and, finally, past the young boy who was skidding down the skateboarding ramp to our left. When the door closed behind us, the women scurried along the sidewalk until they reached a car parked on the corner of Main Avenue an Fifth Street. Before they got in, I introduced myself and asked the woman what they bought.
“Herbal incense,” she said.
OK, but why would anyone pay $20 for a gram of incense?
“It gets you high,” she said. “And it’s not illegal.”
The New World of Synthetic Drugs
The synthetic drug market has exploded during the past four years, leading to many different chemical compounds and product names such as K2, Bliss, Tranquility, Spice, Wet and Wild and Eight Ballz. These new drugs are often sold as innocuous products such as herbal incense and bath salts and packaged with a label that warns against human consumption, but if ingested they mimic the effects of marijuana, LSD, ecstasy, cocaine and other controlled substances.
The packaging is also deceptive. Many of the products come in brightly colored wrappers that appear harmless.
“The packaging almost looks like candy wrappers,” said Hope Olson, director of the North Dakota Crime Lab. “It looks like something for kids.”
Merchants sell synthetic drugs online, and they can be found on the shelves of smoke shops, record stores and other retail establishments. Rogue chemists manufacture them in basements and warehouses across the U.S. and abroad. And for several years, the industry was allowed to grow without interference from law enforcement.
But using these new synthetic drugs has proven dangerous and potentially lethal, and state and federal lawmakers are scrambling to enact new laws to ban the chemicals used to manufacture them.
News reports from across the country tell horrific stories: In Mississippi, it took six men to restrain a man high on bath salts who had shot and killed a sheriff’s deputy; an 18-year-old Michigan resident was found dead along the shore of Wing Lake after smoking herbal incense; and two teenagers died and several more were hospitalized after a house party in Oklahoma where they ingested a synthetic drug that was purchased on the Internet.
The mayhem is spreading across North Dakota as well, according to medical professionals and law enforcement leaders.
Statistics compiled by the state Attorney General’s Office show the use of synthetic drugs has increased rapidly during the past two years. In 2010, for instance, law enforcement officers submitted 216 samples of synthetic cannabinoids (herbal incense) and synthetic cathinones (bath salts) to the state crime lab for analysis. A year later, that number had grown to 1,225 samples, outpacing the number of methamphetamine samples and second only to the number of marijuana samples.
North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said those numbers indicate a “brand new wave” of synthetic drugs are hitting the streets. “Law enforcement and the medical community are scrambling to get ahead of the curve on this,” he said. “It’s a very dangerous trend.”
A Looming Public Health Crisis
Doctors across North Dakota said they’ve treated patients with symptoms including extreme nausea, hallucinations, voices in their heads and seizures as a result of using synthetic drugs. One patient “sloughed off” an arm after injecting a synthetic drug, and another patient who smoked herbal incense stopped breathing and had to be kept on a respirator until the drug burned out of his system.
Rob Howard, a doctor in Williston who owns Advanced Drug Testing Inc., said synthetic drugs represent a looming public health crisis because there is no legitimate way to research the long-term effects of human consumption. Even the short-term effects are too dangerous for reputable scientists to conduct human studies, he said.
“One of side effects is chemically induced psychosis,” he said. “In other words, people start hearing things and seeing things that aren’t there. One individual we were testing was in here, and I asked him if they had stopped yet, and he said ‘Have what stopped?’ And I said ‘The voices.’ And his head snapped up and said ‘How did you know?’ This was about three weeks after he stopped using.”
Dr. Paul Grooms, who works in the emergency room at Medcenter One, said synthetic drugs such as herbal incense and bath salts are extremely dangerous because they usually contain a cocktail of different chemicals that could include anything from rat poison to fertilizer. He said cases involving synthetic drug use are difficult to treat because there are so many different chemical compounds used to manufacture them and patients usually have no idea what they ingested.
“Even very small amounts can have adverse effects,” Grooms said. “There’s no antidote for these things because so little is known about them. All we can do is treat the symptoms.”
In some cases, it’s too late for doctors to do anything. Last month, two teenagers from the Grand Forks area died after taking synthetic drugs. Seventeen-year old Elijah Stai of Park Rapids, Minn., and 18-year old Christian Bjerk of Grand Forks died within days of each other after taking a synthetic hallucinogen in the form of a white powder.
Federal and state law enforcement agencies launched an investigation into the deaths of the two teenagers and, within days, issued a warning to the public that noted “there may be a large quantity of lethal synthetic drugs on the street right now in the North Dakota/Minnesota market.”
So far, two men have been charged with crimes in connection with the distribution of the synthetic drugs that killed the teenagers.
Staying Ahead of Law Enforcement
The proliferation of synthetic drugs has confounded law enforcement agencies and policymakers ever since the first marijuana imitations reached the market about five years ago. So far, the industry has managed to stay one step ahead of each new law intended to stop it from spreading.
State legislatures in more than 40 states have passed various laws to ban the sale and possession of the chemical compounds used to make the new drugs, and Congress recently outlawed 26 chemicals known to be used for manufacturing K2 and Spice. But each time a law is passed, the synthetic drug industry develops a new formula and releases the product on the streets.
“The law enforcement community is constrained by statute. The law has to prescribe what is prohibited,” Stenehjem said. “And the big problem for us is that there are any number of bathroom chemists out there who are tweaking the chemicals to come up with a different substance. These are people who just throw stuff together and sell it to people. These drugs aren’t manufactured in controlled settings.”
The North Dakota Legislature originally attacked the problem by banning the chemical compounds used to make specific types of synthetic drugs. But the industry was able to stay one step ahead by making slight molecular changes to the products. So, state lawmakers tried a different approach last year by banning the core structure of the chemicals so that any offshoots, or “chemical cousins,” would also be illegal.
But the problem is far from solved, said Charlene Schweitzer, a forensic scientist at the North Dakota Crime Lab.
“We defined the core structure of these groups and, if you look at the statute, basically made hundreds of compounds illegal,” she said. “But now the problem is there are new groups of compounds that we have yet to define. The chemistry changes so fast with these things. Every week, we’re seeing a new compound.”
Howard, the doctor in Williston, said his drug-testing company recently spent about $300,000 on equipment that can be adjusted to detect new chemical compounds that hit the market. But detecting synthetic drugs and stopping them from reaching the public are two completely different challenges, he said.
“By changing the molecular structure in just one position on the chain, you can come up with 10,000 different chemicals that have the same active backbone. And if you change two or more positions, you could create millions of different chemicals,” he said. “That’s what’s going to make this so difficult.”
-Matt Bunk is publisher of the Great Plains Examiner.