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September 9, 2011

Designer drug sales persist in Ohio, despite ban

By Dave Larsen and Cornelius Frolik
Dayton Daily News

MIAMI, Ohio — Miami Valley residents continue to abuse designer drugs including "bath salts" and Spice during the 90-day period before legislation to outlaw the dangerous chemicals goes into effect, local officials said. The legislation was signed into law in July by Gov. John Kasich.

A Dayton Daily News review of local businesses found that few of the stores that sell synthetic drugs have stopped selling them ahead of the ban. Criminal and medical cases related to bath salts continue at an alarming rate, according to law enforcement and hospital officials.

"Our community is taking advantage of the 90 days. We are still seeing this stuff at a steady pace," said Cindy Jennings, a forensic registered nurse at Miami Valley Hospital.

The hospital's emergency department is seeing five to 10 bath salts-related cases a week, including patients who are delusional or have extremely high heart rates, she said. Poison experts and law enforcement officials said they can only hope that the number of cases drops sharply once the ban goes into effect Oct 17.

Five deaths this year
Bath salts, a synthetic stimulant with hallucinogenic properties, has been tied to more than 20 criminal cases in the area this year, including domestic violence, driving under the influence and drug-facilitated assault, said Laureen Marinetti, chief forensic toxicologist for the Montgomery County Coroner's office and the Miami Valley Regional Crime Laboratory. "They haven't let up at all," Marinetti said.

Five deaths this year in the Dayton region have also been linked to the substance, according to the coroner's office.

Crime lab forensic chemist Brooke Ehlers said she has seen a recent increase in syringe-related bath salts cases, indicating that more people are injecting the drug, which is typically sold in powder form.

"We are seeing some mixtures with the bath salts and the synthetic cannabinoids," indicating people may be smoking stimulant-laced Spice, Ehlers said.

Since January, the crime lab has tested confiscated substances in 60 to 70 bath salts-type cases, and 100 to 120 synthetic cannabinoid cases. Those items were not part of the coroner's office cases, Ehlers said.

Despite the impending ban, bath salts and Spice remain available at some area head shops and on the Internet.

Jennings said some retailers are selling the drugs at a discounted rate, as evidenced by "half-price off stickers" on some bath salts containers found in the possession of hospital emergency department patients.

'Stocking up'
A Dayton paramedic reported making a medical run to a house where boxes of bath salts were stored.

"People are stocking up. They did tell the medics directly that, 'This is going to be illegal soon; I have to stock up,' " Jennings said.

Hospital officials expect to continue seeing bath salts-related cases through January, "until their current supplies are gone," she said.

Local police agencies said while synthetic drugs are a major concern because of their potentially dangerous effects, the substances are still legal under current law, limiting what authorities can do to crack down on abuse of them.

Even though certain chemicals used to make Spice were banned earlier this year by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, manufacturers of synthetic marijuana skirted the ban by slightly altering the chemical composition of their products.

Officials said lab tests have shown that some of the "DEA-compliant" products contain banned chemicals. But no local prosecutions have resulted from the sale of these products, authorities said.

"It's just so new, we haven't seen (cases) come through," said Andy Sexton, Dayton municipal prosecutor. "Victims would say, he was high on (synthetic drugs), but it's nothing we have been able to prove or charge beyond a reasonable doubt."

Game-changing law
Police, however, said they believe the new law will be a game-changer in the fight against bath salts and Spice.

Lt. Brian Johns, head of the narcotics unit with the Dayton Police Department, said the law will make the sale of synthetic drugs no different than the sale of other Schedule I substances, such as marijuana, heroin and Ecstasy.

Johns and other police officers said business owners would have to be crazy, foolish or both to continue to sell products that could result in felony criminal charges.

"If they do sell it, they will be arrested just like any drug location would," Johns said. "We would arrest the people inside, nuisance abate the property, and there is a possibility they would be boarded up for up to one year."

The war against synthetic drugs may become easier starting Oct. 17, but the question bothering law enforcement officials and poison experts is whether the popularity of bath salts and Spice as a method to get high will die down when the ban takes effect. Other states have reported reductions in bath salts and Spice cases following bans enacted by its state legislatures.

Louisiana led the nation in cases of bath salts until lawmakers on Jan. 6 banned six of the primary chemicals used to make the products, said Mark Ryan, director of the Louisiana's poison center.

During the first five days of January, the Louisiana poison center received 21 calls about bath salts, Ryan said. After the ban went into effect, the center received only 11 more calls that month.

Major case reduction
Since then, the poison center has only received about five or six calls about bath salts per month.

"We went from having 61 percent of the cases (nationally) in December to, in the last few months, having less than 1 percent of the cases reported in the U.S. to poison centers," Ryan said. "It seems like the ban has really worked."

Florida, which at the end of January became one of the first states in the nation to ban bath salts, saw the number of calls about the drugs to poison centers drop from 47 in January to about 20 in February and then seven in March, said Wendy Stephan, the health education coordinator for the Florida Poison Information Center Miami.

Florida centers now receive about 10 to 15 calls about the substances each month. January saw a surge in calls because of widespread media coverage on bath salts, Stephan said.

But Marcel Casavant, medical director of the Central Ohio Poison Center, said he believes the state ban will be effective in reducing the number of synthetic drug cases in Ohio, because bans of these substances in other states have been successful and previous drug bans in Ohio worked. Cases of GHB, also known as the date-rape drug, declined precipitously in Ohio after the drug was outlawed, he said.

"The fact that (a synthetic drug) is legal is encouraging a lot of people to try it, and some actually have the mistaken impression that because it is legal, it's probably not as dangerous," Casavant said.

"Once people stop selling it, I think the frequency of these cases will go quite a bit."

Even if the ban curbs abuse of Spice and bath salts by Ohioans, officials said some chemists will certainly continue to develop and distribute synthetic drugs that cause intoxication, but are not covered under current drug laws.

"This is the wave of the future when it comes to substance abuse in the United States," said DEA Special Agent Rich Isaacson, with the Detroit Field Office. "Unscrupulous chemists are trying to stay one step ahead of the law."

Asking for the public's help
The Greater Dayton Hospital Association has launched a synthetic drug task force to help spot new designer drugs that could be coming on the market.

"We've already heard that there are two different types of synthetic drugs that are now in California that would not be illegal under the current state law that may make their way out to the Midwest here in Dayton," said Bryan Bucklew, the association's president and chief executive officer.

Bucklew said the task force also will educate police, fire, emergency medical services and hospital emergency room professionals about how to identify and deal with people who are using designer drugs. Its first official meeting will be held in mid-October to coincide with the synthetic drug ban becoming effective.

"We are fully anticipating that once it goes into effect that the numbers are going to completely fall off," which was the case with Salvia, a psychoactive plant that Ohio banned in 2009, Ehlers said.

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