Synthetic drug bust dries up local sales

October 9, 2011 – DAILY NEWS JOURNAL, MURFREESBORO, TN — A recent countywide bust on illicit synthetic drugs led by the Tennessee Bureau of  Investigation may have dried up local supplies of “spice” and “bath salts,” but users can still crawl the underbelly of the world wide web to get their fixes.

Items siezed from a market on Middle Tennessee Boulevard are loaded into a pickup by undercover agents last month during “Operation Synful Smoke.” Murfreesboro Police Department, Rutheford County Sheriff Department and the TBI executed search warrants at several local convenience stores believed to be selling illegal synthetic drugs.  (Jim Davis/DNJ file photo)

Items seized from a market on Middle Tennessee Boulevard are loaded into a pickup by undercover agents last month during “Operation Synful Smoke.” Murfreesboro Police Department, Rutherford County Sheriff Department and the TBI executed search warrants at several local convenience stores believed to be selling illegal synthetic drugs. (Jim Davis/DNJ file photo)

The increasing online availability of products containing methcathinone-derivatives and synthetic cannabinoids — the active ingredients in bath salts and spice, respectively — have federal, state and local law enforcers up in arms and emergency officials concerned.

The products create highs similar to Ecstasy, cocaine, marijuana and other drugs. The products were recently banned on the federal level  here in the U.S., but several companies still sell the products online.

“While it is difficult to effectively combat Internet sales, we have made great progress in getting these dangerous materials off local  merchants’ counters and this is where the majority of sales were taking place,” Murfreesboro Police spokesman Kyle Evans said.

Local and state authorities’ hands are tied when it comes to cracking down on online sellers outside the state.

“As far as Internet sales of synthetic drugs, it is and will be difficult to track down the makers and distributors because the majority of them  are out of the country,” TBI spokesman Kristin Helm said.

The issue is further complicated by the continued legality of plant food and bath salts in several states.

“As far as those who are making synthetic drugs in other states, as you know, TBI does not have jurisdiction and it would be up to the  authorities in those states to work those cases under their laws,” Helm said.  “TBI does pass along any information it receives concerning suspected illegal activity in other states to the proper authorities.”

Despite the difficulties, law enforcers are now aided by the new federal ban on synthetic drug products. The interstate sale of synthetic drugs will likely be impacted by the temporary ban on three synthetic substances by the DEA.

The DEA and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will further study over the next year whether the substances, which are all  methcathinone derivatives or analogues, should be permanently banned in the U.S.

The announcement of the ban and the study of the substances came during a Sept. 7 meeting that included Gil Kerlikowske, director of National Drug
Control Policy, and representatives from the U.S. Departments of Justice, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Transportation and  Defense, as well as the Food and Drug Administration and others.

During the meeting, Kerlikowske updated the departments on his administration’s efforts to reduce synthetic drug use and production. The agencies  also shared current data and regulatory trends and discussed ways to further disrupt the production, importing, sale and use of synthetic drugs.

“I commend the DEA for taking swift and decisive action to help protect health and safety,” he said, via a news release following that meeting. “These  products are harmful and appear to have become increasingly popular, particularly among teens and young adults. The good news is that we know  families are not powerless against this threat.

“As we work with public health officials to address this emerging challenge, I ask parents and other adult influencers to act immediately to discuss  with young people the severe harm that can be caused by the use of both legal and illegal drugs and to prevent drug use before it starts.”

On the state level, Rep. Mike Sparks, R-Smyrna, in a recent interview with The Daily News Journal, said he would begin looking into whether the state needs stiffer penalties for manufacturers and distributors of illicit drug-mimicking synthetic substances.

Sparks has been an outspoken critic of synthetic drugs like Molly’s Plant Food and was part of a group that sponsored a bill during the last legislative session that made a number of synthetic chemicals illegal throughout Tennessee.

Making, selling, possessing or using most synthetic drug substances in the state is currently a Class A misdemeanor. A violation carries with it an up to $3,000 fine and less than 11 months and 29 days in jail.

“I believe when we looked at this before, the fiscal impact on the state would have been too large, and I don’t want to get into a situation where we are  having to raise taxes to support a law,” he said. “Back then, I believe we looked at making it a felony for possessing as well. I don’t think a user, who is probably addicted to this stuff, should be punished as much as those who are making it and selling it.”

Some have criticized the state’s punishment for those who violate synthetic drug laws.  Those critics have said making the manufacture or sale of those synthetic drugs a less serious crime compared to the penalties for drugs like cocaine and Ecstasy sends the message that synthetic drugs
aren’t “real drugs” or “an equally real problem.”

Murfreesboro resident Amber Heath, who has followed the issues surrounding synthetic drugs closely, said she feels the state’s stance on the issue will end up costing people their lives.

“Those (synthetic drugs) are just as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than the old-fashioned drugs,” she said.

Information released by the American Association of Poison Control on July 31 indicates that reports of exposure to “bath salts” alone had increased from 302 for all of 2010 to 4,137 cases from January 2011 to July 2011. As of July 31, 2011, there were 3,787 calls regarding exposure to synthetic marijuana compared to 2,915 calls for all of 2010.

Locally, Murfreesboro Police, the TBI and other authorities are also hopeful the TBI’s Sept. 8 crackdown on convenience stores across Rutherford County will be successful in cutting off the local supply of the synthetic drugs and cutting down on the number of local synthetic drug-related
incidents.

Over the past several months, police and other public safety agencies have dealt with numerous issues related to use of synthetic drug products.   Some of the most recent incidents include the arrests of two Rutherford County students for possessing synthetic marijuana in class, according to
reports on file at the county sheriff’s office.

In another case, a brother and sister contacted the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office about their mother’s synthetic drug use.  The brother and sister told police their mother had been acting strangely after using Euphoria bath salts. After authorities learned the woman hadn’t slept for three days straight and was acting erratically, an ambulance was dispatched to her home and she was transported to the Middle Tennessee Medical Center Emergency Department.

Several other cases of overdose and bad reactions to the drugs have been reported to law enforcement over the past several months, including an Aug. 20 incident involving a Nashville television reporter.

The reporter ingested Molly’s Plant Food and drove his vehicle in circles on a number of lawns, almost striking children, according to police. He also ended up in a local emergency room.

The TBI’s “Operation Synful Smoke,” resulted in more than 23,000 units of cannabinoids and bath salts being confiscated on the local level, along with
$44,500 cash, according to information released by the TBI following the bust.

MPD spokesman Evans said it is still too early to tell for sure whether the effort will have an impact on the local synthetic drug supply, but the MPD believes the majority of synthetic drug buyers in Rutherford County and Murfreesboro were getting their drugs from the markets, not the Internet.

“It is too soon to tell at this point (whether the bust has had an effect on local synthetic drug supplies),” Evans said. “But we do expect to see the number decrease over time.”

Despite the belief that most users of the products bought their products because they were available locally, both the MPD and TBI urge local parents to monitor their children and teenager’s Internet activity if they suspect they may be ordering synthetic drugs via the Internet.

“We would encourage parents to remain vigilant as to what their children do online as well as what they purchase online,” Helm said. “If (parents) find their child has purchased these illegal products, we would suggest they contact the local law enforcement agency in their jurisdiction.”

More important, Evans said, is that parents talk to their children about synthetic drug products just as they would illicit drugs.

“Parents should have conversations with their children about the dangers of these (and all) drugs,” he said.

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