A little more than a year after the North Carolina General Assembly passed a law banning various forms of synthetic marijuana, enforcement of the statute still poses a problem for police.
Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed traveled to Raleigh at the request of Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, about two weeks ago and met with several state officials to talk about synthetic drugs and problems law enforcement officials encounter.
The Waynesville Police Department receives about a dozen calls a week related to synthetic drugs, which in essence are plants that have been sprayed with a number of unknown chemicals and psychotropic drugs, Hollingsed said.
Synthetic cannabinoids are marketed under names such as K-2, Spice, Black Mamba and Bombay Blue, among others. They can also be advertised as incense or potpourri and come in packages marked “not for human consumption.” Problem is, people do consume it. And, anyone can legally buy it.
“You can be 12 years old and walk into a convenience store and buy this stuff,” Hollingsed said. The way the drugs are made and sold one can never be sure what type of chemicals the substance contains, he added.
Side effects of the drugs include hallucinations, seizures, vomiting, elevated blood pressure, increased anxiety, loss of control, lack of pain response, violent behavior and spastic body movements.
“It is a very intense high, and it doesn’t show up on drug tests,” Hollingsed said, adding that the long-term effect of the drugs are unknown.
The police receive calls either when parents find the substance among their children’s possessions or a child has grown suddenly violent or passed out as a result of ingesting synthetic drugs.
“All the sudden, they are absolutely out of control and start threatening people,” Hollingsed said. “You are playing Russian roulette every time you take this stuff.”
Although legislators have outlawed specific compounds, drug manufacturers have tweaked the chemical composition just enough to where it falls outside the arm of the law.
“The original intent of the legislation was that all chemical combinations would be banned,” Hollingsed said.
However, because drug laws require very specific chemical breakdowns, one molecule change can mean the difference between legal and illegal — making it harder and harder for police to enforce laws against synthetic drugs.
Synthetic drugs have been all over the headlines lately after several horror-movie-horrifying incidents. Most notably, Rudy Eugene of Miami was found naked eating the flesh from another man’s face. When police asked him to stop, Eugene simply growled and continued ripping the skin from his victim’s face.
Law enforcement officials then shot Eugene repeatedly, killing him. Not long after the incident was reported, police released a statement saying they believed Eugene was under the influence of bath salts at the time.
Bath salts are a synthetic cocaine or meth substance that causes euphoria, severe paranoia, psychotic episodes, increased energy and heightened senses, among other side effects.
Hollingsed sent a letter to business owners around Waynesville in early April telling them about the drugs and asking those who sell the substances to stop. About a dozen stores sold some variant of the synthetic drugs at the time, Hollingsed said.
“Just because it might be legal, does not make it ethical or safe for the young people in our community,” the letter read.
Legislators, along with the state attorney general’s office, are currently looking into drafting a law similar to the analog drug laws of the 1960s.
The federal government passed analog drug laws to help crack down on the sale and ingestion of different forms of the hallucinogenic drugs PCP and LSD. This means that any chemical substantially similar to those drugs was also deemed illegal, and police could arrest people in possession of them. However, there is no way to know the exact chemical make-up of a compound unless it is tested.
“The problem with that is it requires the state crime labs to test each individual chemical” to see if it is in fact illegal under the law, Hollingsed said.
Since the legality or illegality of specific compounds has people’s heads spinning, law enforcement officials and community members are focusing much of their attention on education.
The Waynesville Police Department, in cooperation with residents, schools and other law enforcement agencies, has started hosting meetings around Haywood County to generate greater awareness of synthetic drugs and their side effects.
“We’ve been active in this county as far as trying to educate people on the danger,” Hollingsed said. “The average kid may not realize the effects it will have on them.”