People are inventing so many new, legal ways to get high that lawmakers can’t keep up.
So law enforcers are taking new steps to target these synthetic drugs.
Those steps include coordinated raids. The latest was Wednesday, when federal agents arrested more than 90 people in a nationwide sweep of synthetic drug producers, distributors and retailers — including a number in Pennsylvania.
Across the country, agents seized more than five million packets of finished designer synthetic drugs, including substances marketed as bath salts, spice, incense, K-2 and plant food, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
They also recovered more than $36 million in cash in the sweep, code named Operation Log Jam.
“We struck a huge blow to the synthetic drug industry,” said James Chaparro, the acting director of the Office of Homeland Security Investigations. “The criminal organizations behind the importation, distribution and selling of these synthetic drugs have scant regard for human life in their reckless pursuit of illicit profits.”
In Pennsylvania, agents searched residences, convenience stores, gas stations, smoke shops and other similar businesses in several counties, including Montgomery and Philadelphia.
They seized more than 300,000 individual doses of synthetic marijuana and illegal bath salts, with an estimated street value of $1.25 million. They also recovered more than 50,000 pieces of drug paraphernalia related to the smoking or consumption of synthetic drugs and about $250,000 in cash and assets, according to the state Attorney General’s Office.
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. 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.
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 that there are so many varieties of the drugs that U.S. lawmakers are always playing catch up.
“The moment you start to regulate one of them, they’ll come out with a variant that sometimes is even more potent,” said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
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.
In Montgomery County, coroner Dr. Walter Hoffman said four deaths have been attributed to the use of bath salt drugs — including a 28-year-old man and 15-year-old girl from Pottstown who were killed in a motor vehicle accident. All four people who died from the drugs were under 30 years old, he said. Bucks County Coroner Dr. Joseph Campbell said that no deaths in Bucks County have been directly attributed to bath salt use.
A Quakertown father has attributed his son’s suicide to mental health problems following bath salt use. And authorities said an Upper Moreland teen was severely injured when he jumped from the top level of the Willow Grove Park mall parking garage after smoking an unidentified synthetic drug.
Many states have banned some of the most common bath salt drugs. For instance, in June 2011, Pennsylvania legislators banned the possession, use and sale of synthetic “designer” drugs.
But while U.S. laws prohibit the sale or possession of all substances that mimic illegal drugs, that’s only true if federal prosecutors can show they’re intended for human consumption. People who make these drugs work around this by printing “not for human consumption” on packets.
Despite the bans, bath salts producers are constantly tweaking their recipes to come up with new drugs that aren’t covered by state or federal laws. In fact, 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.”
These drugs include synthetic marijuana substitutes, also known as “herbal incense.”
At one Doylestown store, the packages were marked “not for human consumption.” When the owner was asked if she knew people smoked the product, she said she doesn’t know anything about what customers do with it.
A man leaving the store with a vial of the synthetic “incense” in his hand said he smokes it because he’s on probation for a DUI charge.
“Before (my DUI), I would not have tried any of this stuff,” said the man, who asked that he not be identified. “Even switching over to this stuff now that I can’t smoke weed is demeaning to me.”
The most common bath salt drugs, like MDPV and mephedrone, were first developed in pharmaceutical research laboratories, though they were never approved for medical use. During the last decade, they became popular as party drugs in Europe. As law enforcement began cracking down on the problem there, the drugs spread across the Atlantic Ocean.
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 powder-based 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. Hospitals in Bucks and Montgomery counties said they’ve had cases of suspected bath salts abuse, but they aren’t tracked separately from other drug overdoses.