Iowa lawmakers, police fight synthetic drug surge

BY MATT STARNS | AUGUST 20, 2012 6:30 AM

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State and federal legislators said they are finding it difficult to combat the spread of new synthetic drug derivatives, despite recent legislation banning the active ingredients in many of these drugs. 

President Obama signed a bill into law on July 9 that outlawed 31 compounds used in the manufacturing of synthetic drugs. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, introduced the bill in March 2011 to ban chemicals combined to produce synthetic drugs.

The list of banned compounds includes variations on the active ingredients in K2 and other synthetic marijuana products, as well as several synthetic cathinones — active ingredients in “bath salts,” drugs designed to mimic the effects of methamphetamine and cocaine.

Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, said lawmakers are at a disadvantage when it comes to fighting the recent outbreak of synthetic drugs.

“We’re at the bottom of the learning curve,” he said, noting synthetic drug manufacturers’ ability to easily change the chemical makeup of the drug to circumvent the law. “All we [can] do is follow the trends, see what’s out there, and make the ones we’re aware of illegal.”

The Iowa Legislature passed a law similar to the federal bill on May 25, making it illegal in Iowa to possess, manufacture, or distribute these types of drugs.

Dave Dvorsky, an assistant director of Johnson County Ambulance Service, said he has seen an influx of calls for synthetic drugs lately.

“There definitely has been a peak in interest, if you will, which has yielded calls for us,” he said. “We have been seeing more than before.”

Dvorsky also said the Ambulance Service has learned to look for synthetic drugs when they get a call for violent or psychotic behavior — something that he said is rather common with individuals who have consumed the drugs.

“At first, it was almost a surprise,” he said. “Now when we see someone who is exhibiting behaviors like these, we consider that they may be under the influence of these drugs.”

Iowa City police Sgt. Denise Brotherton said the department has also seen a recent spike in incidents involving the drugs.

“We’re seeing it more and more,” she said. “Probably because of the lack of responsibility of businesses selling these products.”

Iowa City police, in conjunction with the Johnson County Multi-Agency Narcotics Task Force, raided In-Zone, 116 E. Washington St., Aug. 2 and seized substances suspected to contain ingredients used in the manufacture of synthetic bath salts. The substances are being tested at the Iowa criminal investigation laboratory.

Brotherton said she does not know when the test results will be available.

Even though the products are marked “not for human consumption,” Brotherton said store employees are well aware of their true intended purpose.

“Here you have businesses selling a product to people that’s going to hurt them, and they know it’s going to hurt them, and we may not be able to [stop it],” she said. “They have absolutely no regard for the safety of the community.”

Brotherton said the adaptability of the drugs to be bent around the law poses a problem for her department, as well as lawmakers — and it makes for a dangerous experience for the user.

“They just keep coming up with new concoctions to sell,” she said. “You might as well go into Ace Hardware and buy Drano and drink it. I would equate it to that. You’re putting hazardous products in your body.”

Brotherton said the drugs aren’t just popular with the student population.

“This is something that we’ve seen all sorts of people on,” she said. “It’s not just the students who are going to use it. We’ve found K2 on the transient population and on professionals.”

Brotherton did say, however, police expect a rise in the number of incidents involving synthetic drugs as University of Iowa students return to campus.

“Hopefully, people don’t make poor decisions,” she said. “But everything increases when the students come back.”

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