This chart from the American Association of Poison Control Center on synthetic marijuana data from Nov. 3, 2011 shows an alarming increase of calls coming in throughout the United States. A similar trend is reported by Florida Poison Information Centers.
Synthetic drugs, bath salts, herbal incense and potpourri, are professionally packaged under a variety of brand names. Officials say the packaging makes people believe they’re safe to use.
Officials say synthetic drug manufacturers target the youth through branding and packaging. Parents say it is difficult to explain to the children why they can’t have this herbal incense product called Scooby Snax.
The cartoon character Betty Boop also appears on the packaging for herbal potpourri.
A warning label is clearly visible on the back of the package of Betty Boop “original potpourri, extra strength.” Although, the label says the product is for fragrant purposes only, people are smoking the product to get a “legal” high.
Some packaging, such as this product portraying the likeness of Demi Moore, is possibly a violation of copyright. County officials notified Moore's agent.
Three years ago, it was prescription drugs. Today, local officials are on the front lines of an emerging new war. This time the enemy is synthetic drugs, commonly marketed as bath salts and herbal incense or potpourri.
The names sound innocent enough, but these products sold under brand names such as K2, Spice and Ivory White, are as dangerous as the street drugs they’re designed to mimic, officials say. Product labels warn that they’re not for human consumption, but people are using them anyway to get a “legal” high.
Paul Melton, an investigator for Pinellas County’s Justice and Consumer Services Department, is concerned about the many nuances involved in what could be the next epidemic menacing local communities.
He’s most worried about the youth, who are taking drugs made from unknown compounds at a time when their brains are still developing.
According to the Office of Adolescent Health, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, one in nine high school seniors reported using synthetic marijuana in the past year, making it one of the most frequently mentioned second only to marijuana.
“Poison Control tells us that calls are increasing and over half of them are youth-oriented calls,” Melton said during a recent interview with Tampa Bay Newspapers.
Two basic types of synthetics drugs are currently on the radar. One is bath salts or designer cathinones, which are stimulants, advertised as synthetic speed or promising a cocaine-like high. The second is synthetic cannabinoids, a large family of chemicals similar to THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, which are supposed to be relaxing and provide a calming effect.
People are being lulled into a false sense of safety thinking these new alternatives are OK to use because they are readily available, unlike their illegal counterparts.
But these drugs are very dangerous, Melton said. No one knows what’s in them and the composition can vary with each batch since there are no quality controls in the manufacturing process.
For example, he recently talked to a mother of a woman addicted to synthetic marijuana. Her daughter, who has a 3-year-old daughter of her own, is now making the drug. Melton explains that the manufacturing process involves mixing chemical compounds together and then spraying them on vegetative materials to look like marijuana – weed.
Melton got involved when he was told that the daughter was crushing up Xanax pills and putting them in her mix.
Melton’s job for Justice and Consumer Services is regulation of clinics that write a high number of prescriptions for certain classes of pharmaceuticals, mostly pain medications. He is also highly involved in programs that educate and try to prevent drug problems. Xanax is one of the regulated drugs.
He started looking deeper into the problem and found an alarming increase in the number of people calling the state poison control centers in relation to synthetic cathinones, bath salts, and in particular, synthetic cannabinoids, herbal incense.
In 2010, poison control centers received 252 calls regarding synthetic marijuana. Sixteen callers were from Pinellas. By 2011, the statewide number had grown to 501 with 44 callers from Pinellas. For the first five months of 2012, calls from around the state totaled 249 with 25 from Pinellas.
The numbers are smaller for bath salts, but the trend is the same with a leap from 21 calls statewide in 2010 to 154 in 2011. The number doubled in Pinellas going from three in 2010 to six in 2011. Through May of 2012, 39 calls had been received statewide and two from Pinellas.
“It’s a pattern of increase,” Melton said, while pointing out that the numbers do not include visits to emergency rooms, reports to substance abuse counselors or private doctors.
Dr. Cynthia R. Lewis-Younger, managing and medical director for Florida Poison Information Center in Tampa, agrees that over the last two years, the use of synthetic cathinones, bath salts, and synthetic marijuana, K2 and Spice, have risen in frequency.
“I think that is because of an innovation in the way that distributors are seeking to provide people with psychoactive substances,” she said. “They look for substances that are not controlled and package them as not for human consumption. They essentially are attempting to stay one step ahead of law enforcement.”
She also agreed that the numbers coming from the poison information center “are an underestimate of the true problem.”
“Physicians are not required to report cases to the poison centers, and users whose effects are not recognized are also not reported,” she said. “Users will not report to us when they are not concerned about the effects they feel. The numbers we have are only those severe enough to be reported to the poison centers – usually because they need emergency and/or critical care.”
Illegal or not
Synthetic substances are illegal in the state of Florida. Gov. Rick Scott signed a law on March 23, expanding the ban on synthetic drugs and placing more than 90 chemicals contained in bath salts and synthetic marijuana on the list of Schedule I drugs, making possession, sale and/or distribution a felony charge.
While the law is good, people making the drugs are changing the chemicals as fast as they’re banned, Melton said. Products have to be tested to find out if they contain a chemical on the ban list. If the lab can’t match the chemical in the product, law enforcement can’t make a case.
Melton admits it is frustrating because it is easier for the manufacturers to get a new chemical than it is to get a law amended to add to the ban list. The solution may be in a new law Melton and other concerned officials are working on that would become more of a “living document,” so changes to the ban list could be made as soon as new compounds are identified.
Despite state law, synthetic drugs can be purchased readily at local convenience stores, smoke shops and online. They come from China and India, as well as local manufacturers.
Melton said businesses buy from local suppliers who show up and offer the product for sale. No one knows what’s in it, except maybe the manufacturers, and there’s no guarantee that the product under the same label will be the same from day to day. Chemicals imported into the United States are often mislabeled to avoid detection.
Targeting the youth
Melton said an even bigger problem is the population that suppliers most-often target – the youth. Melton talked to a convenience store owner in Clearwater who sells the products. The storeowner reported that of his 60 customers a week, about half were kids from a nearby school.
Melton said some storeowners don’t think they’re doing anything wrong. They say they're not to blame for people using the product for purposes other than what is stated on the packaging.
But, because the products are sold in local convenience stores, people seem to think they’re OK to use,” said Marvin Coleman, vice president of Community and Business Relations at Operation Par.
“And the younger the client, the worse the perspective,” Coleman said. “The packaging is so sophisticated. They use cartoon characters, which gives the false illusion that these companies are co-signing off on it.”
“Everyone assumes they are safe, but they don’t know what’s put in it,” he said.
Synthetic drugs are marketed under a variety of colorful street names. Bath salts can be found labeled as Ivory White, Vanilla Sky, Pure Ivory, Whack, Bolivian Bath, Sextacy, Gloom, Purple Rain, Hurricane Charlie, Fly, Purple Wave, Charge+, Ocean Burst, Crush and White Rush.
Popular names for synthetic marijuana include K2, Spice Silver, Spice Gold, Mr. Nice Guy, Yucatan Fire, Red Nugz, Smoke, Genie, Blue Majik, Puff, Ninja, Dark Night and King Krypto.
Packaging is one way Melton hopes to combat the problem.
Oftentimes packaging mimics copyrighted materials with some using the likeness of Scooby Doo or celebrities, such as Demi Moore or Charlie Sheen. Melton said he reported the problem to Demi Moore’s agent. Letters are also being sent to parent companies of the convenience stores, such as the gas supplier or franchiser, to inform them of the problem.
Laws and education
Pinellas County law enforcement can use current paraphernalia laws in the fight against synthetics. Melton said the drugs are often displayed next to the pipes or other smoke accessories at local stores. Largo and Pinellas Park have been aggressive with their enforcement, using the paraphernalia law, he said.
Deputies recently delivered a signed notice from Sheriff Bob Gualtieri to 190 independently owned convenience stores in July recommending compliance with a state law that bans the possession and sale of those chemicals found in synthetic marijuana. Narcotics Sgt. Dan Zsido said Aug. 3 that the letter was helping.
While law enforcement continues to fight the problem, stronger laws that are more flexible are needed on a local, state and federal level, Melton said.
Pinellas County Commissioners approved an amendment to the existing paraphernalia ordinance Aug. 7 requiring stores that sell those items to post a warning in an effort to educate parents.
“While folks seem to know where to go to get their pipes, etc., we are finding that parents are not as aware of the ease of access to these products,” Melton said. “The warnings are one of several steps moving forward including a broader education campaign for parents.”
Commissioners continued consideration of advertisement of public hearing on a new ordinance on “substances of significant concern.”
He said the ordinance would provide for bath salts and synthetic marijuana and other DEA listed chemicals of concern that have emerged recently in Pinellas.
Melton said education and awareness are important to getting a handle on the problem. Collaboration among community partners is paramount.
“Government and law enforcement can only do so much,” he said. “The community has to become involved.”
Editor’s note: This is the first segment in a series about the war on synthetic drugs in Pinellas County. The series continues next week.