In early 2011, a 17-year-old boy entered a head shop in Salina, Kan., and purchased a package of chemically laced potpourri.
The teen went home, smoked what he apparently believed was synthetic marijuana and suffered a seizure. He was taken to a local hospital where he slipped into a coma.
While the boy survived the experience, the case and related events illustrate a few points about synthetic drugs.
The chemists who make them are always trying to stay one step ahead of controlled substance bans.
The chemists who make them demonstrate little concern about the safety of the products they produce.
Even when a substance used in the manufacture of a synthetic drug isn't specifically banned at either a state or federal level, there are laws on the books to help authorities go after the producers and sellers of these compounds.
The 42-year-old shop owner, Eric Srack (in photos above), was eventually arrested. He was convicted in September 2011 of selling a substance that was an analog to (mimics the effects of) a controlled substance. Later, he entered a guilty plea to a related felony charge for possession with intent to sell an analog to a controlled substance.
According to The Hutchinson News, Srack was suspected in February of 2011 of manufacturing blends of potpourri known as "Bubble Gum Fun" and "Midnight Moon."
According to the story, Srack bragged on his Web site:
I am the only man alive with my recipe. Although all of my blends are lightly fragranced, they remain 99 percent all natural and completely herbal.
When authories raided warehouses belonging to Srack, they reportedly found substances containing the chemicals JWH-122 and JWH-210. Authorities charged that the substances were analogs to JWH-018 and JWH-073, which were already banned in Kansas.
The substances JWH-018 and JWH-073 were used in the manufacture of Spice and K2, the most commonly recognized names for synthetic marijuana.
It appears that Srack created his own potpourri with the intention of skirting both federal and Kansas controlled substances laws.
Srack's amateur cannabinoids modification demonstrates how easily somebody with a limited background in chemistry can get into the synthetic drug trade, and how few safety precautions clandestine chemists take before releasing a new substance to consumers.
In the past year, Genesee County has seen a couple of waves of synthetic drug use, first with synthetic cannabinoids and more recently with chemical compounds known as bath salts.
The spike in bath salt use over the past several weeks has led to reports of seizures, extreme body temperatures, odd and even dangerous behavior and people with numerous paranoid delusions.
Eventually, the bath salt craze will fade, but the more than 50-year history of synthetic drugs, often called designer drugs, shows that when one so-called "legal high" is banned, users will seek out a new fix and, increasingly, there are underground chemists willing to try and supply it to them.
The invention and manufacture of synthetic compounds that have mind-altering effects goes back to the early part of the 20th Century. But wasn't until 1979 that authorities first encountered a dangerous drug that didn't show up in urine and blood samples and was designed to mimic a substance that was already illegal to sell and manufacture.
The drug was China White, a synthetic form of heroin created by an anonymous chemist in California.
China White was a knockoff of fentanyl, a powerful painkiller used in clinical settings, usually as an anesthetic in major surgery.
The new drug was 20 to 40 times more powerful than heroin and a druggist with $500 in chemicals could produce product worth $2 million on the street, according to a 1985 article by Jack Scafer in Science magazine. (Read the end of the article for an interesting discussion of the connection between another "new" heroin product and how it helped scientists find a possible connection between environmental pollution and Parkinson's Disease.)
Dozens and dozens of people died as a result using China White in the years immediately after its introduction.
After China White came PCP, GHB, Ecstasy, Special K and Nexus, among others, before the introduction around 2005 of Spice, K2 and the first form of "bath salts."
The ever-changing non-organic drug market is likely continue to befuddle law enforcement and health professionals until the cops and prosecutors catch up with the 21st Century, according to Bruce Talbot. He retired from the Woodridge, Illinois PD after a 26-year career and is a drug-recognition expert who has studied synthetic drugs extensively since the 1980s.
"Our current drug laws are based on the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 when our drugs were based on plants," Talbot said. "It was meant to regulate opium, heroin and cocaine. But that's the 20th Century. Our laws need to catch up with the 21st Century."
In response to the rise of previously unknown drugs that mimic already banned substances, in 1985 Congress passed the Federal Analog Act, which made it a crime to sell and distribute compounds and substances intended to produce the same effect as drugs already declared illegal.
The act requires a two-prong test for prosecution:
That the substance has components and effects similar to a Schedule I or Schedule II controlled substance;
And, that the producer intended it to have an intoxicating effect.
That's why products that are sold as "bath salts," "incense," potpourri," "spice" and "plant food" contain the warning, "not for human consumption."
Invariably, that's the only notice on the colorfully decorated packages with fanciful names indicating that the contents might be harmful if consumed.
The warning seems to exist purely as a legal fiction designed -- producers hope -- to protect manufacturers and sellers from possible criminal consequences.
The naming and marketing of the packages often seem intended to attract buyers other than those looking to make their water smell sweet or attract ladybugs to their gardens.
Sample products available online: Mind Candy (sold as a "plant food"), Pink Panther (sold as a "research chemical" out of the UK), Day Lights (which carries the warning "Keep out of Reach of Children. Not for Sale to Minors. Do Not Consume.") and White Water Rapid (which says not for human consumption, but also carries the warning "Enjoy with caution.") (Also check the packaging pictures in this story copied from a Web site that claims to sell legal highs at wholesale prices.)
At the recent anti-bath salts rally outside 420 Emporium on Ellicott Street, one of the protesters found a discarded package of "Party Rocks," a "tie dye" substance, according to the package.
One online site that advertises possible designer drugs describes "Party Rocks" this way:
If you loved the laid back 70's or maybe you are just a New Age Hippie at heart, then you will love these great Tie Dye Capsules. Unlike the ones you find at the local super store, these capsules dont have a bad chemical smell and won't leave your house looking like a dye factory. The pleasant orange aroma and easy to follow instructions will have you ready for a 70's style party in no time. Each pack contains two capsules and is just enough to make even the lamest things look cool. This item is not to be consumed and should only be used on fabric.
An online discussion forum for apparent drug users gives users a chance to review such substances. It contained this comment:
One such product are Party Rocks Tie Dye Concentrate. Two capsules, filled with reddish pink/white powder (to the brim) that you dissolve in water and squirt on a t-shirt, then let dry for 12 hours. Well I wore my shirt right away, and It was amazing...
The next comment, though, is more direct about how the substance may be used.
Hey bud, would you mind being a just a smidge more clear about what these do? It almost sounds like this stuff is psychedelic. Or is it just another in the long line of stims?
There are legitimate "bath salts" you can buy either online or in many types of retail shops, of course -- the kind of product you dump into warm water before relaxing in the soothing soft liquid as it washes over your body after a long, hard day; but, the products sold up to now as "bath salts" carry no marketing message that would indicate they would be aromatic.
Clearly, the thinly veiled marketing of these products sold by head shops or online herbal stores as a plant food or iPod cleaner suggests they are not really intended for either of those purposes.
Glenn Duncan, executive director of the Hunterdon Drug Awareness Program in Flemington, N.J., has studied synthetic drugs extensively and maintains one of the most informative Web pages available on the constantly changing analog landscape.
At some point, prosecutors, Duncan agrees, will need to work with law enforcement to find creative ways to arrest producers and sellers of these products when existing laws prove inadequate, or until legislation better fits today's illicit drug market.
"Quite obviously, these things are sold for human consumption," Duncan said.
The current scheme of waiting for new drugs to hit the market and then outlawing the substances once they've proven harmful is not working, Duncan said.
For example, MDPV emerged in bath salts in 2005. The first MDPV-related seizure was reported in 2006. It's only been a Schedule I controlled substance in New York for less than a year, and federally since July 9. By the time it was banned, most "bath salt" products being sold no longer contained MDPV.
To become a controlled substance, a chemical compound must first get listed on an emergency schedule and tested by the FDA. Not every substance that goes through this process is later banned as a controlled substance.
The process is slow, cumbersome and doesn't always yield results that keeps dangerous drugs off the streets.
"Chemists will always be five years ahead of the federal government," Duncan said.
The bill that banned MDPV with President Barack Obama's signature on July 9 also banned mephedrone, and Duncan is frustrated that the legislation sponsored by Sen. Charles Schumer didn't go far enough.
An earlier version of the bill also would have banned naphyrone, but somewhere along the line for reasons that Duncan said are not entirely clear, naphyrone was dropped from the bill.
Even so, there are a total of 83 substances, as far as Duncan knows, that are used in bath salt and bath salt-like products.
"In his press release Sen. Schumer said this put 'the final nail in the coffin for legal bath salts,' " Duncan said. "It was the most ridiculous statement I ever saw. I was angered by it. If he looked at my Web site, he would see 83 substances listed. He put two nails in a coffin that needs 83 nails."
For example, there are now products appearing in retail outlets containing pentedrone, which hasn't been scheduled yet, but is already sending people to emergency rooms.
Kansas is apparently doing its best to keep abreast of new synthetic cannabinoids, and a law enforcement official in Salina said it appears that fake pot is a bigger problem in the state than bath salts. This week, authorities in Kansas issued an emergency ban on UR-144, which has been marketed under several brand names, including "Halo Zombie Matter."
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