If real drugs are believed to be a social ill, what happens when the legal-but-still potent drugs hit school hallways and streets?
It’s a looming problem that has prompted federal and state authorities to issue warnings against powerful chemically laced substances like synthetic marijuana and so-called “bath salts." If you haven’t heard of these substances, we’ll explain:
- The “fake weed” is basically potpourri laced with chemicals designed to replicate THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. It’s typically called K2 or Spice, but those are more like umbrella terms for a number of available products. (DEA) (WebMD) (Wikipedia)
- The “bath salts” consist of chemical compounds designed to replicate the highs of cocaine and methamphetamine. (DEA) (Wikipedia)
Sold as potpourri or incense, both substances are perfectly legal and can be found in convenience stores, gas stations and tobacco shops.
River Forest Police Deputy Chief Craig Rutz said many officers are “aware of the stuff,” but added that enforcement efforts “would be a waste of time.”
“We can’t really do anything about it,” he said. “If we run into a kid [who has the substance] I would certainly notify his parents. That’s the best thing I could do.”
Kristine Raino Ogden, with the local anti-drug group IMPACT, said local parents have heard of the substances, but said there is “no direct evidence of kids using it in this community.
“We can’t say for sure that there aren’t kids using it, but we’ve seen no evidence,” she said.
Citing American Association of Poison Control Centers statistics, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office said abuse of synthetic drugs is surging. Last year, poison control centers received 302 calls about bath salts; in 2011, that number has skyrocketed to 5,600. And national poison control centers received about 2,900 calls for synthetic marijuana issues; in 2011 so far, they've received nearly double.
The sudden spike has lawmakers, parents and police worried because of the harmful effects of the chemicals and the unpredictable behavior of those under the influence.
Consider a few recent news stories, including the arrest of an Arizona man who believed his 5-year-old son was possessed and burned him, and the arrest of West Virginia man, dressed in women’s underwear and covered in blood, who killed a neighbor’s goat.
In both instances, authorities said the men had binged on the synthetic hallucinogens.
Extreme examples? Perhaps.
Yet Madigan says there's an "upsurge" in the availability of synthetic drugs in Illinois — some with deadly consequence.
In April, 28-year-old Tonia Whitehead, of Alton, apparently overdosed on "bath salts," according to a Chicago Tribune story. Just a few months later, in June, 19-year-old Max Dobner was killed after smoking synthetic marijuana, getting behind the wheel and crashing his car into a home in North Aurora.
Those incidents have prompted bans on the sale of bath salts in Alton and bans on the sale of synthetic marijuana products in North Aurora. Dobner's mother created a foundation, To The Maximus, which aims to wipe out the sale of "fake weed" entirely.
Federal drug authorities have taken note.
Last year, the Drug Enforcement Administration issued an Emergency Notice of Intent to control several chemicals used to make K2. And in Illinois, certain products sold as K2 were outlawed as of Jan. 1, 2011.
Still, authorities and manufacturers are in a game of cat-and-mouse — authorities ban one substance; drug makers tweak their formula and replace it with something legal.
Though authorities say the substances can be purchased easily in nearby Maywood, Cicero and Berwyn, police in Oak Park say there's little evidence to suggest the sale of substances is widespread, particularly after officers in the department's residential beat officer program began making routine checks at local stores to see if the products were for sale, then "educating" shopkeepers on their dangers.
Those checks, police said, led to one Oak Park store removing a synthetic marijuana product called "Happy Hour" from its shelves. Police declined to say which store had sold it.
"There’s not a whole lot we can do. However, we’re monitoring stores to see if they're selling the items and we're trying to get the word out," said Oak Park Police Det. Cmdr. LaDon Reynolds. "It's dangerous...all members of the community have to be responsible. The people who stock the stuff on their shelves have to be responsible."