VINTON–It is difficult for law enforcement officials to fight drug distributors operating out of neighborhood tobacco shops or convenience stores, selling merchandise which is not regulated by the state or federal government, but produced to mimic the effects of illegal substances.
That is the battle the authorities are now facing with the infiltration of synthetic drugs into the Roanoke Valley.
Synthetic drugs are chemically-laced substances similar to marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamines. Based on chemical make-up, these drugs are commonly divided into two categories: cannabinoids, popularly known as K2 or Spice, and cathinones, commonly known as bath salts.
K2 and Spice are chemically formulated versions of synthetic marijuana. Bath salts, which only look like fine powders that are used for bathing, contain chemical compounds that mimic the effects of cocaine or meth. While these drugs are packaged as “not for human consumption”, their design, labeling, and marketing alludes to the products being smoked or inhaled as a drug.
In an attempt to get ahead of this latest drug craze, a coalition of local, state, and federal officials, medical professionals, community groups, and attorneys joined forces in a regional news conference at South County Library in Roanoke County on May 16. Their purpose was to publicize the local use of synthetic drugs and to warn parents and children of the dangers. The officials sent a message to sellers and users, announcing their plans to tackle the distribution and use of these drugs in the Roanoke Valley.
“Criminals have now created products veiled to sell to the public, which appear to be safe,” said Chris Perkins, Chief of Police for Roanoke City. “These synthetic drugs mimic the effects of illegal drugs. They display innocuous labels which disguise their intended use. They are dangerous and harmful. “
Synthetic drugs are suspected in two recent deaths in the Roanoke Valley, with toxicology results still pending.
“These drugs are being manufactured with no regulatory controls, made from a variety of chemicals, which cause a variety of reactions including hallucinations, erratic behavior, aggression, accelerated heart rate, suicidal thoughts, confusion, and even death,” said Perkins. “They are not just a user problem; they are becoming a public safety and public health issue.”
A new law will take effect on July 1, making many of these chemical compounds illegal. The first step for authorities will be a warning to convenience stores and tobacco shops in the area known for selling the drugs, which are often marketed as bath salts, incense, plant food, insect repellant, and even stain removers.
Law enforcement officials plan to visit shops in the Roanoke Valley selling these products with a letter in hand that will give shop owners a chance to stop selling the products or face a potential indictment.
However, the problem law enforcement faces is the challenge of staying ahead of ever-changing formulas not covered by the new law. Chemists producing the substances can switch up the recipes just enough to skirt the law.
“We can’t legislate ourselves out of this problem,” said Vinton Police Chief Ben Cook. “It’s easy for manufacturers to tweak a product, change one element of the formula, and it’s legal again. If they alter the composition, the substance again becomes unregulated with no legislation against it.”
Officers in Vinton have received several calls recently about individuals displaying erratic behavior who admitted to using bath salts.
“While people are using these substances to get high; the seller’s motive is purely to make money,” said Cook. “Many of these products are not yet regulated; new regulations coming in July will make them illegal. We have warned tobacco shops in the area selling these products that if they sell it and someone dies as the result, they can be held criminally liable.”
Dan Freeman, an emergency care nurse at Roanoke Memorial Hospital, has seen an increase in emergency room visits over the past 18 months due to synthetic drug use.
“These drugs become addictive after just one use and can result in agitation, paranoia, seizures, and suicide attempts,” said Freeman. “We see individuals who are suffering life-altering complications. They are brought to the emergency room displaying violent behavior, kicking, screaming, and striking out. There is no antidote to rid the body of these drugs.”
Kathy Sullivan, Director of the Roanoke Area Youth Substance Abuse Coalition (RAYSAC) warned parents in the community that they need to be proactive in educating their children about the dangers of these drugs, since parents ultimately have the greatest influence over their children.
“Synthetic drugs can cause lasting brain damage and permanent side effects,” said Sullivan. “And they can be bought at convenience stores and on the Internet.”
In fact, an online Google search for “K2, Spice, or Bath Salts” brings up hundreds of sites where the synthetic drugs can be purchased under such names as “Mad Hatter, Mind Trip, Scooby Snax, Fairly Legal, and VooDoo Dust”, starting at around $16.00. One site describes their products as “legal incense”. Another website selling the substances states that “Until a few things are cleared up, we cannot ship to Texas, New Jersey, and Illinois.”
“You are putting poison in your bodies that can cost you your life,” said Tom Bowers, Commonwealth’s Attorney for the City of Salem. “Parents have always warned children about ingesting harmful household products. These products have not been tested. They are unknown substances with unknown results which can be deadly. These drugs are a chemistry experiment that you are putting into your bodies.”
“Deaths which result from these drugs can be prosecuted as murder,” said Bowers “Laws must be readjusted to address these synthetic drugs,” said Bowers. “They are readily available and can be even more expensive than illegal drugs and even more dangerous. At this point, they are hard to ban. Our best recourse is to educate parents and users about their dangers.”
By Debbie Adams