The synthetic scourge: Designer drugs wreaking havoc on society

Heather Regan White
synthetic marijuana

Over the past two years, synthetic drugs have emerged in the United States as the new way to get high. These are chemical cocktails, designed by amateur chemists, who mimic the effects of drugs like cocaine, LSD, ecstasy, methamphetamine and marijuana.

They are sold online or under the counter at convenience stores in colorful little envelopes for as little as $10, with names like Vanillla Sky and Hurricane Charlie.

Stimulants are being sold as bath salts and can be snorted or smoked in a pipe. Synthetic cannabinoids are labeled potpourri or incense and are infused in grasses often imported from India and China. These chemicals are far more dangerous than their packaging would suggest. Using them just once can cause severe hallucinations, chest pains, high blood pressure, extreme paranoia, a dangerously rapid heart rate and in some cases suicidal tendencies.

"People who've used these drugs come in looking like they have Parkinson's disease," said Dr. Earl Soileau, a board-certified addiction specialist with Lake Charles Memorial Hospital. "These drugs have long half-lives, are highly addictive and it sometimes takes three or four weeks for the effects to go away," he said.

Soileau said that bath salts cause damage similar to that of methamphetamine. "They cause damage to the synapses – they're pretty much burned away to the point where people can't feel pleasure. They can also cause liver damage," he added.

"One of the biggest problems with these synthetic drugs is that you cannot be certain what's in the package," said Calcasieu Parish District Attorney John DeRosier. He said testing has shown that in a group of five identical bags, two or three had different chemical compositions.

According to DeRosier, the packages say "not for human consumption," strictly to protect the manufacturer and sellers. "Everybody — the manufacturers, the sellers, the ultimate users — know exactly what they're for," he said. "They're to get high.

"A doctor explained it to me like this — the first time you use it, it lights up 13 pleasure centers in your brain," continued DeRosier. "The second time, it may light up 12. The third time, it's only going to light up 11. And it goes on like that. The more you use, the more it takes. You're chasing that high you got the first time and you'll never get there. That's what gets people to overdose."

Hallucinations are one of the most dangerous aspects of these drugs, according to DeRosier. Hallucinations from the use of "Cloud 9" bath salts led to the tragic suicide of a Covington man in late 2010. DeRosier said that after using drug, Dickie Sanders, 21, became convinced that his house was surrounded by police cars.

He suffered through several days of delirium and even attempted to cut his own throat. One night his father, Dr. Richard Sanders, slept with him, hoping to calm him. The next morning it was discovered that Dickie had slipped from the bed and shot himself. "It's such a tragic story," said DeRosier.

While many of the stores that once sold these products have complied with new laws, many have simply moved the items from on top of the counter to below it or into a back room.

In June of 2010, legislation was passed in the Louisiana Legislature outlawing certain chemicals used in the manufacture of synthetic drugs but by August, manufacturers had already changed the compositions to use chemicals not yet illegal.

In December of 2010, law enforcement officials from throughout the state, as well as some from Texas, met in Lake Charles. With assistance from the Legislature, the group crafted a law that would outlaw not only specific chemicals but entire families of compounds and any of their byproducts.

"I think the bad guys may have come up with a couple of compounds not covered in that legislation, but we've expanded it so much that it makes it a lot more difficult now — you can't simply change a molecule and it's now legal," DeRosier said.

Sgt. James Anderson with Troop D of the Louisiana State Police told the Southwest Daily News that undercover narcotics agents have told him that while there is not an epidemic of synthetic drug use in Southwest Louisiana there are still businesses selling them on the sly. Late last month, the LSP arrested a mother and her two sons, all from Lake Charles, for possession of an estimated $134,000 of bath salts with intent to distribute.

Anderson said that drug use is not victimless crime. Between April and May of this year there were six motor vehicle fatalities due to driver impairment, four in which the drivers were using narcotics. "One of the worst things we have to do is go to someone's home to tell them a loved one has been killed," Anderson said.

In the state of Louisiana anyone found in possession of these Schedule I drugs can face up to 30 years, five of them being hard labor, and a fine of as much as $50,000.

"The fact that there is not a bigger problem locally can be attributed in large measure to efforts taken by local governmental bodies to control the sale of these products," Anderson said.

The American Association of Poison Control Centers reports that more than 1,700 calls pertaining to synthetic drugs were received in the first half of this year. Locally, Dr. Soileau said that on average, between 10 and 15 people are admitted to LCMH each week complaining of side-effects from the use of synthetics. Along with detoxification, long-term counseling is often needed. His advice to parents looking to keep their children away from them is, "Spend time with your children. Get them involved in sports or a church. Eat supper around the table and listen to them."