Fake drugs, real consequences

Becky Campbell • Feb 5, 2012 at 12:48 PM

It’s known by several names — herbal incense, K2, Spice, Happy Shaman are just a few —- and drug users learned long ago that smoking it gives a similar affect to marijuana with no fear of failing a drug test.

And a product called bath salts isn’t something to provide a soothing bath. Snort this powder and you’ll get a high similar to cocaine.

Both products are legal to purchase and use, but they are also wreaking havoc on many users who wind up in the hospital for days to detox from the fake drugs. Officials say these products are more potent and have a greater or intensified effect than the compounds they mimic.

“Bath salts gives you a mescaline/ecstasy type high,” said Washington County Sheriff’s Sgt. Sam Phillips Jr. Users also reportedly compare the effects to using cocaine.

“You have hallucinations. You can look at a tree and instead of seeing the tree, you hear the tree. You can listen to music and instead of hearing the music, you see the music,” Phillips said.

The herbal incense products are the “lesser of the two evils (compared to bath salts),” he said, but still are a big problem.

“Our biggest problem used to be OxyContin and roxycontin. Now this is our biggest problem because it’s legal to buy.”

When a user experiences the hallucinations or needs the drug and can’t get it, he or she can become violent toward friends and families, Phillips said.

“We’re getting most of our contacts from people who have taken it and family members who can’t deal with them rationally,” he said.

“We have to subdue them until we get medical on scene so they can tranquilize them out.”

Dr. Dan Ross, an ER physician at Mountain States Health Alliance, said he noticed a rise in the number of bath salt users needing emergency treatment about a year ago.

“Bath salts is a potent synthetic stimulant,” he said. It binds several chemical receptors in the brain simultaneously, resulting in the user becoming “agitated, hyper, tachycardic, psychotic. It’s similar to meth or cocaine,” Ross said.

The drug is snorted, smoked or ingested.

Treating someone on the drug can be difficult, because there are no guidelines on the treatment protocol, Ross said.

“There’s no test for it. You have to depend on your suspicions or they may tell you,” what they’ve used, he said.

It’s a scene played out over and over all across the Tri-Cities. But it doesn’t just affect the users and their families.

Several Johnson City businesses located near one local smoke shop have also experienced negative effects.

Joe Rieger, who owns Sandy’s Jewel Box on Oakland Avenue, said he reopened his store after the usual January off and learned of some changes in the neighborhood.

“There’s a shop on the street selling the synthetic drug. People are coming by the boatloads all hours of the day,” Rieger said.

He’s talking about Cloud 9, which another business owner said opened a couple of months ago.

Brandy Miller, owner of Inspire Hair Color Studio, has been amazed at Cloud 9’s apparent success since it opened.

“There’s a hundred cars in and out of here every hour,” she estimated. “There are children in the car. They leave them in the car or they’ll take them into the store with them,” she said.

Miller said many Cloud 9 patrons use her parking lot — there’s only four sparking spaces at the smoke shop — for parking as well as using their purchase.

“They’re snorting it in the parking lot and they don’t care that you’re watching them,” she said. And people enter her shop to ask for money.

Miller’s hair salon is already losing customers because of the questionable activity, she said.

“Several customers said they will not be back,” she said. Miller’s shop has been at the same location for three years, but since Cloud 9 opened she’s considered closing down because she can’t afford to move.

Attempts to reach the owner of Cloud 9, Dan Bickley, were unsuccessful this week, and a call to his attorney, Brandon Sizemore, on Saturday was not returned.

Rieger and Miller have called city and state leaders with little success of a solution.

City officials told both that “there’s nothing they can do,” although Rieger feels differently.

He thinks the city can enact an ordinance like Kingsport did instead of waiting for state legislators to pass a new law banning the substances.

Rieger said he had return calls from Tony Shipley and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey with promises of upcoming legislation to ban the products. He said Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge “reached out to me,” to also express his concern about the issue.

Eldridge said the Washington County Commission passed a resolution endorsing legislation proposed by Tony Shipley “encouraging the state legislature to take action on that as soon as possible to make it a felony in the state.”

It’s unlikely county government will pass any law banning the substances given the state’s “imminent action,” Eldridge said.

“Any action the county could take would be imposing a civil fine of $50. That’s why we’ve thrown all our efforts behind the state legislation.” Right now, no one can really be held accountable for what the products do to a user.

“There’s no vicarious liability on this because it says on the package ‘not for human consumption,’ ” Phillips said.

That could change if a proposed bill during the upcoming legislative session in Nashville makes it through all the required votes to become law. Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, is one of three legislators who have submitted similar bills to ban the sale of synthetic marijuana and bath salts.

“We’re trying to put the folks who are selling these products out of business,” he said. “Right now it’s a legal drug that is literally killing people.”

When he and his fellow lawmakers passed a similar bill a year ago, it specifically targeted a group of chemicals that were being applied to the herbal incense products.

“If they tweak it just a little bit,” the product isn’t covered by the limitations of the ban.

The proposed legislation will cover “anything that is designed to alter the chemical compounds,” of the nervous system, Lundberg said.

Rieger said the business owners selling bath salts and synthetic marijuana should reconsider the products they sell.

“It’s a shame these individuals don’t have any conscience about,” what they’re selling. “The products they’re selling are harming children all over America.”

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