Bad by design?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 3, 2012

Synthetic street drugs meant to mimic real thing may be real problem


A trial pending now in Lawrence County Common Pleas Court will set a precedent for the county: It is the first time people have been charged with selling synthetic drugs.

Drug cases have become commonplace, unfortunately, more so than local law enforcement and judicial officials would like. Cocaine. Marijuana. Crack. Heroin.

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Those have been on the streets here at various times over the years. But in January, sheriff’s deputies raided the Counter Culture shop in Burlington and removed an estimated $20,000 of synthetic marijuana and what is being called other analog compounds.

Fake pot?

Law enforcement say those who sell the stuff incorrectly contend it is a natural alternative to marijuana.

Police and health officials caution the problems they have seen thus far with synthetic drugs are all too real and they believe there could be problems in the future we don’t even know about yet.


The local case

In January, the Lawrence County Drug and Major Crimes Task Force raided The Counter Culture Shop in Burlington and arrested the owner, Robert Holley, 45, of Rush, Ky., and his employee Joshua Tackett, 32, of Olive Hill, Ky.

The store was the target of an investigation after an anonymous tip alleged the shop was selling synthetic marijuana and other similar substances, the sale of which became illegal in October 2011 after the passage of House Bill 64.

Both men have been indicted twice. In January, shortly after the raid, Holley was indicted on two counts of trafficking in spice and Tackett was indicted on one count of tampering with evidence. Authorities allege he tried to hide items the task force members were looking for and that were named in the search warrant.

In April, Holley was indicted on four counts of trafficking in drugs and Tackett was indicted on one count of possession of drugs.

(See page 5A for more on this case.)


What is spice?

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the idea of creating synthetic marijuana came after a Clemson University professor made public a research paper detailing his experimental use of a particular chemical compound to determine the effect of cannabinoids on the human brain.

“The main chemical used to produce synthetic marijuana is JWH-018 (the initials are those of the professor conducting the Clemson University experiment), similar to THC (which is the key chemical in marijuana),” the Website report said.

“Following the publication of a paper detailing the experiment, the description of the method and ingredients became popular among persons searching for a marijuana-like high. People began spraying the synthetic chemical compound described in the article on dry herbs and then smoking them as they would regular marijuana.”

The purpose of using the chemical compounds is to get the effect of smoking pot without actually smoking real pot. Enterprising entities then began creating their own forms of fake pot and distributing it.

Lawrence County Sheriff’s Detective Aaron Bollinger said synthetic marijuana is commonly sold as “spice” or “potpourri.”


Why it’s a problem

Bollinger’s problem with synthetic marijuana is the same problem he has with what has become known as “bath salts”: Nobody yet has a clear understanding of how dangerous these products are and what long-term effect they might have on the user.

Bollinger said the problem is that synthetic marijuana is not an “all-natural” commodity, as proponents would have people believe.

“There are chemical compounds sprayed on there to get the same euphoric effect,” Bollinger said. “There’s nothing natural about it at all.”

Bollinger said very little research has been conducted by scientists about the long-term effect of using these products.

Family Guidance counselor Pat Barron echoed Bollinger’s sentiment.

“We have patients who used K-2 or spice. The problem with synthetic pot is that its an ‘unknown.’ Marijuana has been around a long time, long enough for us to know if it will produce physical and psychological damage. We don’t know about synthetic pot. One manufacturer may put one chemical in theirs and another manufacturer may put another in theirs. We don’t know how harmful these are.”

There are already some indications that synthetic marijuana may be causing health problems for users: the FBI Website report mentioned a 14-year-old Florida boy taken to a hospital after having seizures and difficulty breathing after trying “fake weed.”

“He and his brother had smoked herbal incense, referred to by local police as ‘Mr. Nice Guy’,” the report said. “In another case, a 17-year-old boy in western Texas was hospitalized in May 2010 after smoking synthetic marijuana before school. After feeling sick on the bus ride to the campus, his symptoms became progressively worse. He was admitted to the hospital, treated, and released within the same day.”

The FBI report said emergency room visits across the country due to the use of synthetic marijuana has risen from 13 in 2009 to 560 in the first half of 2010.

Bollinger said local deputies have stated on reports they have found and confiscated synthetic marijuana and/or bath salts from vehicles during traffic stops, have found people who have been using these items and who were charged with disorderly conduct, and in other instances requiring law enforcement attention.

Barron said he would caution people about the wisdom of putting something in their system when they don’t know what it is. Barron said the problem with “real” marijuana is that it is a gateway drug that often leads to the use of other drugs.

Ohio outlawed synthetic drugs of this nature in 2011 in answer to the use of spice, bath salts and the like. The myriad of mixtures sold as synthetic marijuana or bath salts is covered under a provision of the law that deals with “analog” drugs or drugs very similar to actual marijuana or methamphetamine and to deal with the propensity of manufacturers to try and skirt the law by slightly altering their product.

“Intent is the issue,” Bollinger said.

But Umberto DeBeneditto, attorney for Robert Holley, one of the two men facing charges in Lawrence County, said he thinks the law is too vague to be used to prosecute people and should be declared “void for vagueness.”

DeBeneditto said the products in question in the Holley cases were tested in a laboratory in another state and determined to be legal.

“He agreed to take the products off the shelves while this is pending,” DeBeneditto said of Holley.

DeBeneditto said, if these products are illegal, then state lawmakers need to more concisely define what makes it illegal.


Bath salts

There have been no cases locally of anyone prosecuted for selling bath salts, but the use of the substances are becoming more common for local law enforcement.

“I have personally seen people in jail that have used bath salts and were out of their minds for a couple of days, not knowing who they were, where they were,” Bollinger said.

According to several published reports, Florida officials have been told the so-called zombie killer, Rudy Eugene, was high on bath salts when he recently attacked and began eating the face of a homeless man.