Last week, Middle Tennessee law enforcement officials threw down the gauntlet on the rising use of synthetic drugs. Or at least they hope they have.
The targets behind the raids were what Internet buzz flaunts as legal highs — substances mixed with synthetic chemicals meant to circumvent drug laws and serve a certain niche of consumers with alternatives to marijuana, ecstasy and other illegal drugs.
Distributors and retailers marketed them as premium incense or potpourri, labeling the products “not for human consumption” while selling them in packets with flashy, sometimes psychedelic, patterns with names such as “Phoenix Fire,” “Barely Legal,” “Green Ghost” and “XXX Strength Dank” — and more commonly “K2” or “Spice.”
According to law enforcement, the packets contained synthetic cannabinoids that drew users to smoke the products, seeking a similar experience to that of smoking marijuana.
Synthetic methcathinone — sold in powder, liquid and crystal forms marketed most commonly as plant food or bath salts — began a parallel rise in popularity behind a subversive wink-wink-nudge-nudge online conversation that encouraged the idea that “plant food” was the legal alternative to highs garnered by stimulants such as ecstasy or cocaine.
In the medical community, however, little is known about the unregulated synthetic products and how they affect those who use them.
“These things are basically clandestine materials that are in the products,” said Dr. Nick Desai, assistant professor of adolescent medicine at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital.
The synthetic drugs emerged on the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s radar screen around the beginning of 2010, just as other states made their own pushes to ban certain chemicals found in the synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic methcathinone.
The Drug Enforcement Administration reacted to what it called the “fake pot” products, using its temporary “emergency scheduling authority” to classify five chemicals found in the synthetic cannabinoids as Schedule I drugs, among the likes of heroin, ecstasy and marijuana.
In March 2011, the Tennessee attorney general’s office, Department of Agriculture, TBI and others, scrambling to react to reports of the increased use of the still-legal synthetic methcathinone, pursued and won a temporary restraining order against the distributors of Molly’s Plant Food, as well as authorization to seize similar products labeled as plant food but used as drugs. The state gained that authorization by arguing the stores selling the products hadn’t actually labeled them as fertilizer as requested by the agriculture department.
That Band-Aid fix gave law enforcement at least some authority to curb the sale of fake plant food, but it would soon become moot as Tennessee lawmakers (following other states) reacted to growing concerns and popularity surrounding the synthetics.
Those concerns stemmed from what Vanderbilt’s Desai described as a rise in use of the synthetic products by teens and young adults in the U.S. over the past five years or so, since awareness of the products made its way over from Europe.
While there have been reports of emergency room visits and even deaths linked to the recreational use of synthetic drugs, Desai said little research has been conducted on the immediate health risks of ingesting the chemical compounds in question.
What’s particularly alarming for the medical community, Desai said, is a reported increase in psychotic behavior coinciding with use of those particular synthetic drugs.
“There may be a much higher risk of psychotic behavior with these synthetic substances … because there are a lot of other contaminants in the substance itself, which could lead to psychotic behavior,” Desai said, adding he tries to convey to his patients and their families, more than anything else, the substances are dangerous because of the lack of institutional knowledge regarding them.
The doctor, who regularly discusses the use of synthetic drugs with his patients (who range in age from 12 to 22), said the mixture of chemicals is unlike that of marijuana, about which researchers know much more regarding what substances it is composed of and what effects those substances have on the body.
On May 5, the Tennessee law banning the possession, sale, manufacture and distribution of synthetic methcathinone — a main ingredient used in the products sold and distributed as “bath salts” and “plant food” — went into effect. On July 1, a similar law banned synthetic cannabinoids as well.
Those law changes led the way for last Wednesday’s multi-county, multi-agency execution of 36 search warrants at Rutherford County-based convenience stores, head shops, discount tobacco stores and gas stations, from which, according to TBI spokeswoman Kristin Helm, authorities seized more than 23,000 packets of the two kinds of synthetic drugs as well as $44,500 in cash.
The TBI, along with the state attorney general’s office, launched that operation, dubbed “Operation Synful Smoke,” at the request of the 16th Judicial District attorney general’s office. Throughout the investigation, according to the TBI, undercover agents made about 150 visits to more than 60 Rutherford County stores between June and August, and were able to purchase the synthetic drugs.
Helm said, however, no arrests were made during the raids and that the investigation was ongoing. Once it’s wrapped up, she said, the TBI would turn the case and its evidence over to the 16th Judicial District attorney general’s office to take before a grand jury.
Meanwhile, around noon Wednesday in Davidson County, in conjunction with the Rutherford County raids, members of Metro’s Specialized Investigations Division raided FAB Wholesale at 609 Lafayette St. downtown.
There, according to Metro police spokesman Don Aaron, officers loaded a truck with plastic tubs containing an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 synthetic cannabinoid products. Officers also seized $1,615 from the business before issuing state misdemeanor citations to six individuals for possession of a controlled substance.
A short time later, Metro officers also executed a similar raid at the “Smoke for Less” store at 1105 Gallatin Pike N. There they seized 10,322 packets and more than $40,000 cash, issuing citations to three employees and one customer.
Investigator Trey King, with the Law Enforcement and Special Prosecutions Division of the state attorney general’s office, said the investigation focused on Rutherford County based on the high ratio of college students from Middle Tennessee State University as well as the success in seizing “plant food” products earlier this year.
“Hopefully, law enforcement will see what was done in this operation and conduct their own operations,” King said, adding that the operation was a team effort meant as a sort of “kickoff” to encourage various law enforcement agencies across the state to follow that lead and go after suppliers and retailers of the synthetic drugs.
Following the statewide seizure order on the fake “plant food” products in March, King said that many agencies seemed reluctant, for whatever reason, to go after those selling the synthetic products. And now with new laws on the books and more than 400 law enforcement agencies across the state, he said, not all police are aware of the law change or even the use of the synthetic drugs.
“The goal is to inform law enforcement what the new law is and then to train the officers on what to look for,” King said.