In the first national crackdown on the burgeoning synthetic drug industry, federal drug agents have arrested 90 people and seized more than 5 million packets of the drugs, which may affect ongoing investigations in Wisconsin, authorities said Thursday.
The operation, launched by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, targeted synthetic drugs often marked as bath salts, incense, plant food or Spice, also known as synthetic marijuana.
None of the arrests occurred in Milwaukee, but cases under investigation may be connected to those takedowns, according to DEA assistant special agent in charge James Bohn of the Milwaukee office.
“We have ongoing local investigations into synthetic drugs that may be impacted by these other operations that occurred yesterday (Wednesday),” Bohn said.
According to the DEA office in Chicago, several seizures were made in other jurisdictions based on infor mation obtained from the investigations in Wisconsin.
Synthetic cannabis has been a bigger problem in Milwaukee than the so-called bath salts, according to Milwaukee police Capt. Anthony Smith, head of the narcotics division of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.
Nationwide, people are inventing so many new ways to get high that lawmakers can’t seem to keep up.
Over the past two years, the U.S. has seen a surge in the use of synthetic drugs made of legal chemicals that mimic the dangerous effects of cocaine, amphetamines and other illegal stimulants.
The drugs are often sold at small, independent stores in misleading packaging that suggests common household items such as bath salts, incense and plant food. But the substances inside are powerful, mind-altering drugs that have been linked to bizarre and violent behavior across the country. Law enforcement officials refer to the drugs collectively as “bath salts,” though they have nothing in common with the fragrant toiletries used to moisturize skin.
States have been passing laws to outlaw synthetic marijuana and the so-called bath salts, and in 2011 Wisconsin passed such laws.
Smith said, however, that it is difficult to keep up with changes in the drugs.
“You change one minor thing and you change the chemical content and skirt the law,” Smith said.
Smith said that in Milwaukee law enforcement agencies see more traditional drugs such as cocaine, marijuana and heroin. But the synthetic drugs are certainly here, he said.
President Barack Obama signed a bill into law earlier this month that bans the sale, production and possession of more than two dozen of the most common bath salt drugs. But health professionals say lawmakers cannot keep pace with bath salt producers, who constantly adjust their chemical formulations to come up with new synthetic drugs that aren’t covered by new laws. Experts who have studied the problem estimate there are more than 100 different bath salt chemicals in circulation.
“The moment you start to regulate one of them, they’ll come out with a variant that sometimes is even more potent,” said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
There are no back alleys or crack houses in America’s latest drug epidemic. The problem involves potent substances that amateur chemists make, package and sell in stores under brands such as “Ivory Wave,” “Vanilla Sky” and “Bliss” for as little as $15.
Emergencies related to the drugs have surged: The American Association of Poison Control Centers received more than 6,100 calls about bath salt drugs in 2011 – up from just 304 the year before – and more than 1,700 calls in the first half of 2012.
The problem for lawmakers is that it’s difficult to crack down on the drugs. U.S. laws prohibit the sale or possession of all substances that mimic illegal drugs, but only if federal prosecutors can show that they are intended for human use. People who make bath salts and similar drugs work around this by printing “not for human consumption” on the packet.
Barbara Carreno, a spokeswoman for the Drug Enforcement Administration, said the intended use for bath salts is clear.
“Everyone knows these are drugs to get high, including the sellers,” she said.
Many states have banned some of the most common bath salts, which are typically sold by small businesses such as convenience stores, tobacco shops and adult book stores. For instance, West Virginia legislators banned the bath salt drug MDPV last year, making it a misdemeanor to sell, buy or possess the synthetic drug.
Conviction means up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Mark Ryan, director of the Louisiana Poison Center, says there are so many different drugs out there that it’s almost impossible to know what people have ingested, or how long the effects will last.
“Cocaine is cocaine and meth is meth. We know what these things do,” he said. “But with these new drugs, every time the chemist alters the chemical structure, all bets are off.”
The financial lure for small-time drug makers is enticing. The drugs can be cheaply imported from China or India, and then easily packaged under local brands.
The widespread availability of the drugs in stores is equally alluring for drug users: They can get a cheap high similar to that of illegal drugs by walking to a corner store.
The most dangerous synthetic drugs are stimulants that affect levels of both dopamine and serotonin, brain chemicals that affect mood and perception. Users, who typically smoke or snort the drugs, may experience a surge in energy, fever and delusions of invincibility.
Hospital emergency rooms, doctors and law enforcement agencies across the country have struggled to control bath salt drug users who often are feverish and paranoid that they are being attacked. Doctors say users often turn up naked because bath salts raise their body temperature so much that they strip off their clothing.
To control the spread of the problem, the DEA issued a temporary ban in October on three of the most common drugs – mephedrone, methylone and MDPV.
That ban became permanent under the bill signed by Obama on July 10. Under the law, anyone convicted of selling, making or possessing 28 synthetic drugs, including bath salts, will face penalties similar to those for dealing traditional drugs like cocaine and heroin.
Those on the front lines say the legislation is a good start. But they don’t expect new laws to dramatically curb use of bath salts in the near term.
“The problem is these drugs are changing, and I’m sure they’re going to find some that are a little bit different chemically so they don’t fall under the law,” said Sullivan Smith, a Tennessee doctor.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.