Federal drug agents and state and local police staged raids across the US, yielding more than 90 arrests and what they said were major seizures of potent, synthetic drugs including so-called “bath salts.”
New York, Illinois, and Texas had the highest number of cities with "take-down sites,” as part of what the federal Drug Enforcement Agency called Operation Log Jam. The DEA said 5 million packets of the drugs were seized from both drug retailers and manufacturing operations, as well as chemicals that could have produced about 14 million more such packets.
“This enforcement action has disrupted the entire illegal industry, from manufacturers to retailers,” DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart said in a statement Thursday.
The crackdown targeted two categories of drugs. One, known as synthetic cannabinoids, includes smokeable substances commonly called “K2” and “Spice.” They are typically made up of plant material coated with dangerous psychoactive compounds. Among 12th -graders these are the second most commonly used illicit drug, with 11.4 percent using it, according to a 2011 survey cited by the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
The other category was synthetic cathinones often known as “bath salts” which are sold with street names like “Vanilla Sky” or “Purple Wave.” They can produce hallucinations, suicidal thoughts, violent behavior, and physical ailments, drug-abuse prevention experts say, and users have also reported extreme paranoia, and reduced motor control.
The drugs are popular, especially with teens, because they’ve been promoted heavily online as legal and not harmful, says Mike Townsend, executive vice president of The Partnership for A Drug-Free America. “But it is very dangerous.”
The crackdown is encouraging and could slow the supply of such drugs, says Mr. Townsend. But “it’s not a long-term solution…. Supply reduction can’t work by itself. You have to reduce demand too. We have to educate kids and parents.”
According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, the number of calls related to bath salt drugs received by poison control centers across the country spiked from 304 in 2010 to 6,138 in 2011, and then started tapering off in 2012. Nearly 7,000 calls also came in about the synthetic drugs in 2011.
The synthetic drugs can have dramatic effects within just 15 minutes of being ingested or snorted. Townsend’s organization has received calls from frightened mothers who say they have to “sit on the child’s chest while he’s thrashing about.”
The makers of the drugs took advantage of compounds that were originally developed for medical research, but have never been tested or approved for human consumption, says David Shurtleff, acting deputy director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
“Spice” is more potent than marijuana, Dr. Shurtleff says, and all the synthetic drugs have shown up linked to more emergency room visits. There could be long-term toxic effects as well, he says. “You’re really gambling with the health of your brain and your body by taking these drugs.”
A law signed this month by President Obama bans more than two dozens substances used in these drugs as Schedule 1 controlled substances, similar to heroin, enabling enhanced prosecution. The DEA is also authorized to treat substances as controlled if they are proven to be chemically similar to banned drugs. Many states have also changed their laws to try to account for the new trend.