published Saturday, November 12th, 2011

Laws cracking down on synthetic drugs legally sold in stores

Several varieties of synthetic marijuana can be purchased in select convenience stores.
Several varieties of synthetic marijuana can be purchased in select convenience stores.
Photo by Angela Lewis.
  • Synthetic Drugs
    Watch as Dylan Evans shares the story of his addiction to synthetic drugs with his mother Brooke Wyant.

MURFREESBORO, Tenn.—Dylan Evans was a freshman making good grades and learning to play piano at Middle Tennessee State University last fall.

Then he started using synthetic stimulants.

Evans hadn't used "real" drugs before; at first he thought the synthetic stimulants he was buying legally as "bath salts" and "plant food" were safe and helped him focus when he was learning piano. The 19-year-old could buy them right off the counter in convenience stores around the MTSU campus.

He soon discovered there were dangers that weren't fake.

"It's the only drug you can swipe your [bank] card for," Evans said, shaking his head. "It's not healthy."

His weight fell from 200 pounds to 165 in a month, and his dependency grew. By spring, he had lost his scholarship and dropped out of school. He couldn't hold down a job and started stealing from his family to pay for drugs, he said.

An overdose of prescription medication that landed him in the hospital about six weeks ago finally gave him the chance to get help, he said.

"That's what pulled me out of it, going to a psych ward," Evans said. "I'm 19. A psych ward. Without an experience like that, I wouldn't have quit using."

Until fairly recently, synthetic drugs were sold openly and legally in convenience stores and in "head shops" across Tennessee and the nation, according to officials in Franklin County, about 30 miles south of Murfreesboro.

SYNTHETIC COCAINE

Often called "bath salts," sold under names such as Ivory Wave, Cloud 9, Ocean, White Lightning, Hurricane Charlie, Scarface, Red Dove, White Dove, Molly's Plant Food, PMA, White Mamba.

Side effects: Insomnia, hallucinations and delusions, paranoia, rapid heartbeat, anxiety, suicidal thoughts


SYNTHETIC MARIJUANA

Sold under names like K2, Spice, JH/Kush, Vampire Blood, and Lazy Cakes, Simmer and Unwind, which are brownies containing synthetic marijuana.

Side effects: Sleepiness, relaxation, reduced blood pressure; at higher doses, hallucinations, delusions, rapid heart rate, paleness, vomiting, elevated blood pressure, seizures

Source: Franklin County Prevention Coalition, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

New state and federal laws now target synthetic drugs that mirror the effects of marijuana, cocaine and Ecstasy, but Franklin County authorities say the legislation is too specific.

The laws list particular chemicals that are illegal, but authorities say the synthetic drug makers are too crafty to get caught up in specifics. They simply use a chemical that's similar but not identical to what's named in the laws.

Some of the packages officials have seized in Tennessee claim they don't contain banned substances such as JWH-018 and JWH-073 -- chemicals in fake pot -- and similar materials.

But Winchester, Tenn., Police Chief Dennis Young and Drug Court Director Ron Bailey say those labels mean nothing.

An independent lab analysis showed every chemical the labels claimed were absent actually were present in fakes seized in Franklin County, they said.

"And they say, 'Not for human consumption,'" noted Bailey, but he said sometimes the materials are sold as incense with a smoking pipe included as the "incense burner."

GAP IN THE LAW

Synthetic drugs are available in Hamilton County and Chattanooga, but some local law enforcement officials say they don't appear to be a major problem.

"I don't recall any," Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd said. "I would have to check with our narcotics agents. I know Middle Tennessee has seen a lot of them."

Young, Franklin County Sheriff Tim Fuller and Franklin County Drug Prevention Coalition Director Tabatha Curtis have been working to introduce stopgap local legislation to hold off the synthetics until new state laws can be passed.

They say they've talked to some state legislators, but none have said they'll submit new legislation in the 2012 session. Revised state and federal laws will supersede local ordinances, but until then it's every community for itself.

Municipal ordinances in the Franklin County towns of Winchester, Decherd, Estill Springs, Cowan and Huntland ban "any substance that mimics the effects of any controlled substances," broadly defining substances used to make synthetic drugs, according to Winchester's version.

Kimball, in Marion County, recently passed a similar measure.

Under Winchester's ordinance, violators face a $50 fine plus costs for each violation. Each package of synthetics is a separate violation.

None of the measures in Franklin County address online purchases, but mere possession is illegal, officials said.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures' last count in August, at least 38 states had passed legislation to snuff out synthetic marijuana and 30 had passed laws to ban synthetic cocaine.

In March, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency issued an emergency one-year ban of five compounds used to make fake marijuana, but listed fake cocaine components only as "chemicals of concern."

But those laws are too specific to be completely effective and the fakes too readily available, officials in Franklin County said.

SYNTHETIC EMERGENCIES

Nationwide, poison control officials report bad reactions to synthetics are exploding.

In 2010, the 57 poison control centers around the U.S. received more than 3,200 calls about synthetic drugs for serious reactions such as increased blood pressure and heart rates, agitation, hallucinations, extreme paranoia and delusions, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

But between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31, 2011, those numbers tripled to more than 9,700, records show.

In Franklin County this year, one of those calls was about "Brandon," 26, a serious pot smoker for more than 15 years.

Police and his friends found him on all fours, foaming at the mouth and not breathing. His muscles were locked, his fingers digging into the soil as emergency medical technicians struggled to keep his mouth open so he could get air.

Brandon, now enrolled in the 12th Judicial District Drug Court in Winchester, said all he remembers is smoking a "hog leg," a joint of JH/Kush-brand synthetic marijuana, about as big around as his little finger.

"Whatever's in it, it can't be good for you," Brandon said.

Curtis said adolescent users don't understand the dangers.

In mid-October, Curtis counseled a 12-year-old boy who had dangerous reactions to synthetic marijuana. The boy said he threw up, had "a horrible headache and felt like his heart was going to beat out of his chest," but he had continued to smoke fake pot, Curtis said.

Children and teens "don't have the mentality to know what kind of damage this is doing to their bodies," she said.

CAMPAIGN AGAINST SYNTHETICS

Dylan Evans' mother, Brooke Wyant, said her family's story should change their minds.

Wyant, 44, says she initially thought substances that were being legally sold in stores were safe. She wants lawmakers to craft legislation that makes possession and sale of synthetic drugs carry the same penalties as the real drugs.

"Our government needs to see it for what it is," she said.

To parents, she said, "Be nosy. Find out what your kids are doing and who they're doing it with. Find out where they're spending their money."

Dylan Evans said his mantra now is "do the next right thing."

"It's getting less and less difficult even after just a few days," he said. "I'm the lucky one."

He's got a date to speak with high schoolers next week about his experience with synthetic drugs.

"They'll grab you by the backpack and hold on till somebody cuts the straps off," he said. "These drugs, man, they're dangerous."

Staff writer Beth Burger contributed to this story.

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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SaintVof423 said...

It's sad college students fear the long arm of the law so much in this region that they feel synthethic substances are the way to go. These synthethics say "not for human consumption" on the package and serve no medicinal purpose whatsoever. This should have been done several years ago when the problem started. I know MANY college students that have smoked the non-synthethic herb throughout college and maintained well over a 3.0, maybe its time we look into something that is benificial for our society instead of fighting it and allowing harmful, synthethic replacement seep in (I am not making the same argument for cocaine)

November 12, 2011 at 9:43 a.m.
PacoBongers said...

I'm a college student, and I've wasted thousands of dollars and days on my addiction to Farmville. Why aren't the authorities doing anything about that? Nearly six hundred people in Chattanooga (or so) suffer lost time and productivity as a result of so-called "social" gaming. Why won't the government protect me from myself and my tragic plight?!?!?!? Like all legal adults, I should NOT be allowed to make my own decisions! Save me, nanny cops!

November 12, 2011 at 12:38 p.m.
macropetala8 said...

People who want to get high will just find something else to use. You can empty the shelves in all the stores and they'll find something. In the 1960s and '70s people actually found a way to smoke banana peels for a quick high.

Maybe they should look at it from a different standpoint. Like what is so lacking in the lives of people from such a powerful and rich country that they still feel the need to take something, even if it endangers their lives, to feel good or get through the day?

November 12, 2011 at 1:16 p.m.
nucanuck said...

Laws and jail time couldn't prevent alcohol consumption, can't prevent drug consumption, and can only be prevented through education. Even then some will abuse and suffer the consequences.

What makes no sense is to think drugs have a law enforcement solution. The criminalization of drugs has led to an enormous and violent drug distribution sub-culture that does our country far more harm than their abuser customers.

Spend tax-payer money on prevention, education, and re-hab, not prisons and a non-sensical worldwide war on producers.

November 12, 2011 at 1:21 p.m.
ceeweed said...

Smoking real deal Marijuana is safer than toking on this legal substitute crap....As for stimulants, I don't get it? Meth has been around since before the summer of love so were many other forms of "speed". Even though I can't remember much of the Sixties, I do recall that my hippie-doper friends warned me about speed and speed freaks...They are weird, wired, paranoid nut cases, not the kind of people you want to share your Redbud and your Boone's Farm with.

November 12, 2011 at 6:07 p.m.
VictoriaSA said...

The synthetic drugs gives people, especially easily influenced youth, an easy gateway to the world of real drugs. They are easily attainable and their dangers are real. They should be taken off the shelves!

October 18, 2012 at 10:33 p.m.
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