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Synthetic Drugs Are a High-Stakes Game

Tallahassee Democrat - June 19, 2012

Imagine sitting down to play poker, and every three hands, the rules change.

 

Ed Cook, a lieutenant with the Leon County Sheriff’s Office’s Narcotics Unit, comes to work prepared to play Texas Hold ‘Em, but drug dealers are playing five-card stud.

 

Such is the life of a narcotics officer when synthetic drugs are on the streets.Although the use of synthetic drugs in Tallahassee is not unusually high, the drugs pose significant health threats. Doctors and law enforcement officials say they have noticed synthetic drug use among the city’s college crowd.

 

Dr. Jeffrey Ferraro, a psychiatrist with Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare, said while the drugs, also called “bath salts,” can induce a euphoric high in some people, they also carry severe risks such as paranoia, hallucinations, aggression, psychosis, high blood pressure and increased pulse.

 

A student was brought to him recently after he was found wandering naked on campus, Ferraro said.

 

“People using these drugs, from what I’ve seen, are mostly 18 to 25 years old,” he said. “It’s what we’re seeing nationally. That’s typically a problem with all designer drugs.”

 

Ferraro said the chemicals involved with bath salts produce a stimulant effect, which is problematic when combined with hallucinations and psychosis.

 

Miami incident focuses attention on 'bath salts'

In addition to posing public health threats, synthetic drugs are a problem for law enforcement agencies across the country. By the time legislation is enacted making the drugs illegal, the chemists have altered their formulas. They then have new drugs, which haven’t been outlawed.

 

Gov. Rick Scott in March signed the latest bill intended to keep up with drug designers who change their formulas to skirt the law.

 

“Bath salts” was the latest ahead-of-the curve formula. Cook said the drug is typically snorted or mixed with marijuana. The drug is also advertised as “Molly,” which is a powdered form of ecstasy, and is sold to the “club crowd,” he said.

 

The drug gained national publicity following a May incident in Miami when a man, Rudy Eugene, 31, attacked another man under MacArthur Causeway. During the attack, Eugene reportedly chewed the face of the victim and growled at police.

 

Florida Department of Law Enforcement Special Agent Supervisor David Gross said his office is still waiting on a toxicology report before it can confirm whether the drug played a role in the attack.

 

LCSO’s most recent run in with “bath salts” was Friday. Cook said the Narcotics Unit searched an apartment after making controlled purchases of marijuana. During the search, “bath salts” were found in the common area of the apartment.

 

Cook said his office is tasked with apprehending criminals with drugs his office doesn’t have tests for yet. He needs to find dealers with narcotics that dogs can’t sniff out because the scent is always changing.

 

Cases with the newer drugs in Leon are relatively rare, though. Cook said last year his office saw about 20 cases.

 

“We’ve really seen a big decrease in the last six or eight months,” Cook said when asked if Tallahassee had a problem with “bath salts.” “There’s definitely been a decrease since the Legislature banned the stuff earlier in the year.”

 

Other drugs include “spice” and “K2.” Both are synthetic types of marijuana. “Spice” and “K2” fall under the label of Cannabanoids — drugs that mimic the effects of marijuana. “Bath salts” are in the cathinone category.

 

FDLE spokesman Keith Kameg said between 2009 and June 1, there have been 35 arrests statewide made with some kind of connection to a cannabanoid.

 

K-12 schools, FSU keep watchful eye

Florida State University Police Department Lt. Edwin Jacob said he’s never seen a case involving “bath salts.” FSUPD has dealt with — at most — two cases involving these newer drugs, he said. When asked about the case Ferraro described, he said he was unaware of it, and it was not handled by FSUPD.

 

“We had one kid who said he did ‘K2,’ ” he said. “He said, ‘It’s legal.’ At the time it was. I said, ‘Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean you should smoke it.’ He ended up getting transported to the hospital.”

 

Leon County Schools Chief of Safety and Security John Hunkiar said synthetic drugs have not been a major issue within the school district.

 

“This is something we’re tuned in to and on the lookout for,” he said. “But it’s definitely not something we’ve seen a lot of within the schools.”

 

Cannabanoids and cathinones were previously sold over the counter with a warning label that said “not meant for human consumption.” Medically, they carry the risk of increased heart rate, fits and delusions, nose bleeds, muscle spasms, kidney failure, seizures, hallucinations, vomiting and loss of consciousness.

 

Not to mention, in many cases believed to involve bath salts, the suspected users end up naked and outside.

 

“Heavy meth and cocaine users, they may be seeking a more intense high,” Ferraro said. “I’ve had a couple of patients who have said that. Unfortunately since these drugs are synthetic, you really don’t know what you’re getting. That’s how you get the people who have the psychosis; there’s no regulation.”

 

Ferraro said as a doctor, treating users of synthetic drugs can be difficult.

 

“There’s very little defense against these types of synthetic drugs,” Ferraro said. “Oftentimes we have to wait for someone to ingest it for us to retroactively study it. Typically we are a step behind. As soon as physicians have a handle on what’s being made there’s a new compound out.”

 

Fighting battle of shifting chemicals

The problem with filing any type of legislation to battle these drugs comes with the ingenuity of those who create them. Florida is one of 41 states nationwide to ban the use of “spice,” “K2,” and “bath salts.” All it takes, however, is one altered element to make the drug fair game again.

 

In March, HB 1175, was enacted, banning the sale of all three synthetic drugs in their current forms. The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker County, bans almost 30 chemicals used to create synthetic drugs.

 

“It’s been a pretty big challenge trying to stay ahead of the game,” Mike Bascom, a spokesman from Evers’ office said. “We’re not able to identify how to make these drugs illegal. There’s no magic-bullet legislation to outlaw all of these compounds because there are some compounds in the same family with legitimate medicinal purposes.”

 

He said Evers’ office is looking into legislation to ban the base compounds in the synthetic drugs. Once those are banned, subtle tweaks in the drug’s makeup won’t make it legal again.

 

Gross said part of the battle is educating vendors who sell dangerous products. He said too often vendors “hide behind a warning label” and care more about turning a profit than public safety.

 

Gross said now the ban is in effect, law enforcement agencies across the state are setting up investigations that will “hopefully lead to long-term jail sentences” for vendors who sell synthetic drugs.

 

“This is a problem,” he said. “And there are convenience stores and merchants who know the dangers and put their profit over the public safety. Don’t tell me you don’t know what the general public is doing just because there’s a warning label on the product.”

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