It was cheap. It was legal. It made people see werewolves and shoot at ghosts.
It was sold as plant food, though it’s doubtful any legitimate gardener ever bought a tiny packet of white powder for the benefit of her azaleas.
It was mephedrone, a synthetic stimulant whose chemical formula was sufficiently different from methadrine, cocaine or other regulated pharmceuticals to make it legal to sell, possess and use — although its effects on the mind and body could be as devastating as any drug available on the black market.
In Winona, plant food first drew police attention in November 2010. By the following spring, users were filling the jail, courts and the emergency room.
“It was scary,” said Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman. “People were taking these drugs and didn’t know the effect.”
What police and emergency-room personnel did know was that the effects — paranoia, hallucinations and bizarre, unpredictable behavior — were often devastating. Brett Whyte, chief of emergency services at Winona Health, said that last summer more than three people a week were brought to the emergency room because of plant food.
In the past three months, they haven’t had a single case, he said.
What has changed?
On July 1, 2011, sale and possession of plant food, bath salts, spice and a variety of other synthetic stimulants and hallucinogens became illegal in Minnesota. Winona Sen. Jeremy Miller was a lead author of the bill signed into law in May.
In the weeks leading up to the day the law went into effect, police incidents linked to plant food and synthetic drugs increased in number—and severity. Exactly how prevalent plant food became is all but impossible to determine, Winona Police Chief Paul Bostrack said, because as a legal substance its use or possession wasn’t a police matter unless it was related to illegal or disruptive activity.
However, police reports from June 2011 link plant food use to cases of assault, child endangerment, reckless use of firearms, false reporting of crimes, a biting attack on an emergency room physician, theft, and counterfeiting.
Plant food use also correlated to a dramatic spike in child protective service petitions, Sonneman said — up to 75 percent of the non-truancy cases in 2011 involved allegations of plant food use by one or both parents.
As July 1 approached, police prepared to enforce the new law. Bostrack promised aggressive enforcement, assisted by a new test that gave positive field identification of plant food.
“We will treat it like any other controlled substance,” Bostrack said. And as one young man learned less than an hour after the ban went into effect, at the stroke of midnight having plant food in your pocket in Winona was as serious in the eyes of the law as cocaine, methamphetamine or heroin.
Initially, police and prosecutors were not expecting a dramatic change in behavior on the street.
But as abruptly as it arrived, plant food seemed to go away.
In September, Winona Health administrator Rebecca Lamberty reported a decrease in emergency room cases involving plant food, from an average of six cases per week prior to July 1 to three cases total between July 1 and the end of August.
Assistant County Attorney Christina Davenport said based on the number of people known to be using the drug a year ago, the number of cases charged is lower than had been anticipated. She said there have been at least 20 cases involving synthetic drugs filed, and while the drug is still on the streets, users have perhaps become more discrete.
“It was obviously a huge problem for us a year ago,” she said. “I think they’re becoming more secretive about using it.”
Sonneman suggested another possible and more optimistic rationale.
“Some people actually do stop using,” she said, “They realize, ‘This could be bad for me.’”
The Winona County Attorney’s Office reports one more number. Of all child protective service petitions filed in 2012, they are not aware of a single one that involved plant food.