When the synthetic drug industry seeped into the Roanoke Valley, it took root silently. Then it flourished, and all virtually unnoticed, Roanoke Police Chief Chris Perkins said Thursday.
“When this hit and we started talking about it, it was like a tidal wave,” Perkins said. “We’re only now realizing there may have been a significant impact on crime in this area because of this issue.”
Photos by Stephanie Klein-Davis | The Roanoke Times
Kristin Bringewatt, with the Roanoke County Community Youth Program at St. John’s Episcopal Church and a volunteer with Roanoke County Fire & Rescue, studies the framed exhibit of synthetic drugs being marketed around the country.
Gwen Mason, community outreach coordinator for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, talks about the dangers of synthetic drugs in the community Thursday night at the Roanoke Police Academy.
Now police and prevention officers play catch-up.
Government agencies across the Roanoke Valley joined forces Thursday to host two simultaneous seminars aimed at raising awareness of synthetic drugs.
The meetings took place less than a month after a new state law went into effect, making illegal a slew of chemical compounds often found in such drugs. And while authorities have taken advantage of the new law by collecting more than $105,000 worth of the drugs from local vendors who voluntarily relinquished their goods, policing on the local level is still a fight against the tide.
The landscape of the synthetic drug market constantly changes, so much that Virginia lawmakers might illegalize one drug only to find another — with a new chemical makeup — has cropped up in its place. And until the state legislature bans the replacement, authorities carry a heavier burden of proving a distributor is selling illegally, and with criminal intent.
For authorities looking to shut down sources of such drugs, the battle can get lost in legalities, legal experts and authorities said.
Federal authorities, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration, can charge people who distribute substances that mimic the effects of already illegal drugs, but the DEA limits the number of cases it takes on to focus on significant traffickers in an area, authorities have said.
For local police organizing to combat synthetic drug distribution, the effort continues to be a fight to keep their heads above water. The new Virginia law aids agencies temporarily, but with chemists constantly changing the formulas of drugs, local police will again be left waiting for the legislature to add more chemical compounds to the banned list.
Tim Carden, the resident agent with the DEA, said that in the past several weeks authorities approached eight local stores selling the synthetic drugs and asked them to stop and surrender the products.
“They were very cooperative,” Carden said.
Concerned residents, alongside educators and government employees, attended both seminars, held simultaneously at the Roanoke Police Academy and the South County Library.
Many came familiar with the street names of the synthetic drugs. Amped, Vanilla Sky and Ivory Wave are all available through the Internet and at some local tobacconists and convenience stores.
James Simmons, 18, of Roanoke County, attended the South County Library meeting.
“I thought it was interesting because I saw it on the news,” Simmons said. “I came to learn. I’ve seen Kryptonite in the store, in Richmond.”
On the other side of Roanoke, at the police academy, Harrel Thompson attended the meeting with his family.
“It’s a serious problem,” Thompson said. “I don’t understand why people do that to start with.”
Roanoke County police Lt. M.L. Williams told the library crowd that police see use of the drugs across a wide band of ages and socioeconomic spheres.
A detective with the Roanoke police drug unit estimated the city responded to 95 incidents involving synthetic drugs since January, though there is no way to conclusively prove that finding, he said. In many cases, such drugs won’t appear on field or urine tests.
Gwen Mason, an outreach coordinator with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said the long-term effects of such drugs remain a mystery, another reason to stay away from them.
“It’s Russian roulette on what it’s going to do to you,” Mason said.
And at prices that run between $20 and $40 apiece, the risk of danger increases, said prevention specialists such as Rene Cox.
Cox, who works with New River Valley Community Services, said she thinks teenagers are attracted to the drugs because they are accessible.
“It’s cheap, no age limit,” Cox said. “You can get it in convenience stores. Sadly it’s just part of our community.”
Roanoke Public Libraries will host a series of seminars in coming weeks to educate the public about synthetic drugs in the community and how police are tackling distribution. Meetings are scheduled to take place at several branches.
>> 6 p.m. Tuesday, July 24 – Downtown Main Library on Jefferson Street in Roanoke
>> 6 p.m. Wednesday, July 25 – Williamson Road Library
>> 6 p.m. Monday, July 30 — Jackson Park Library
>> 6 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 14 – Raleigh Court Library
>> 6 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 15 – Melrose Library
>> 6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 16 — Gainsboro Library