Mar 14 5:00 PM

The latest target in the war on drugs is often completely legal

Since Nixon declared the war on drugs more than 40 years ago, the United States has spent a trillion dollars with little to show for it besides leading the world in illegal drug use and the largest prison population in the world. Now the battlefield is changing. Designer, synthetic drugs are flooding the marketplace, morphing the target of the government’s war, and many of our weapons and tactics have become obsolete.

In this episode of “TechKnow,” we show how law enforcement and legislators are reaching out to the forensic science community to innovate and assist in thoroughly testing these often undetectable synthetic drugs. This is just one critical front in an attempt to bring consequences to the designers of these dangerous chemical compounds. At the moment, the amateur street chemists are winning. Nearly 100 new compounds are introduced each year. The molecular structure always alters illegal drugs ever so slightly, thus consistently staying one step ahead of legislation.

A federal ban on synthetic drugs became law on July 9, 2012 and was outmoded before President Obama’s signature dried.  While the law banned 15 chemical structures of synthetic cannabinoids, there were already new versions being sold online, in smoke shops, and gas stations around the country when the law was enacted. There have been a few high-level busts by the DEA since then, and that may give the impression that the DEA has a grasp on this problem, but a little probing reveals that that is far from the case.

A federal ban on synthetic drugs became law on July 9, 2012 and was outmoded before President Obama’s signature dried.

Noreen Moustafa

"TechKnow" Producer

Prosecutions are increasingly difficult to achieve unless the offending substance is one of the few structures banned, or a proven analogue thereof. Trials devolve into confusing chemist versus chemist testimony, often leaving jurors confused. Since enacting effective legislation in every state is slow going, we are seeing creative and desperate measures from American families who have lost their children too soon and are seeking justice. For example, in Atlanta, the Burnett family is suing BP oil after their 16-year old son Chase, “bought a package of Mojo Diamond Extreme Potpourri at a BP in Peachtree City owned by Green Oil. He brought the synthetic drug home, smoked it and died.”

It’s an interesting case to watch, as it may set a precedent for parents seeking justice after losing a child too soon.

Devastated parents are driving the conversation on synthetics. Many have become activists, trying to educate law enforcement, legislators, and kids alike. Lance Dyer of Georgia lost his 14-year-old son Dakota when he tragically committed suicide after smoking synthetic marijuana. According to the "Atlanta Journal-Constitution," Lance advocates for new legislation but is also a big proponent of arming law enforcement and schools with drug testing technology that can actually detect a wider spectrum than the usual suspects.

In the “TechKnow” segment, we got to see how RTI International’s mass spectrometry machine works to detect synthetic drug compounds. What Dyer and so many others are hoping for is to put such technology into the hands of schools, employers, and law enforcement in every county.

Synthetic marijuana products, labeled as "incense" or "potpourri," are legal and sold in gas stations and smoke shops across the country.
(TechKnow/Al Jazeera America)

One such device, is TruNarc, a handheld narcotics analyzer that uses a process called spectrum analysis to detect over 100 different narcotic and synthetic drug compounds.

"The device brings the testing lab to the field," said Thermo Scientific Company representative Michael Nagle. That speeds up the process of getting to prosecution, but science and technology alone won’t stem the flow of these drugs. Education about this nebulous and complex topic seems to be key.

Teenagers and military personnel are the two populations most greatly affected by synthetic drug use: teenagers due to a lack of information on dangerous drugs that have an air of legal legitimacy and servicemen because they are routinely drug tested but still looking to get high. Although “bath salts,” or synthetic amphetamines, earned a lot of media attention in 2012, mostly due to a spate of “zombie-like attacks” carried out by users experiencing a psychotic episode while under the influence, much of the public remains unaware of the dangers of designer drugs.

That attention and subsequent education on the risks and effects of bath salts may have had impact, however, as use of the synthetic amphetamine appears to be down. According to the "Los Angeles Times," “The American Assn. of Poison Control Centers reported 6,136 calls related to bath salts in 2011, up from 304 the year before. By the end of 2012, such calls dropped to 2,656, and through the first half of this year, the centers received 528 calls.”

The same cannot be said for “spice.” Use of synthetic cannabis amongst high school students is rampant. In 2012, 11 percent of American high school seniors had used synthetic marijuana in the past year. “Spice” has become the second most popular illegal drug amongst teenagers, after marijuana. Although it purports to mimic the effects of marijuana, the consequences of smoking it are much more dire.  

In 2012, 11 percent of American high school seniors had used synthetic marijuana in the past year. 'Spice' has become the second most popular illegal drug amongst teenagers, after marijuana.

Noreen Moustafa

"TechKnow" Producer

“People may not realize how dangerous these drugs can be — up to 1,000 times stronger binding to cannabis receptors when compared to traditional marijuana,” and only growing more potent, says Dr. Andrew A. Monte of the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

The misconception that “spice” is as benign as marijuana that lead to the tragic death of Max Dobner in June of 2011. At the time, most Chicagoans hadn’t heard about synthetic marijuana, but Max’s mother, Karen Dobner, has been relentless in her mission to educate since she got the call that her son had been in a fatal car accident.

Max had gone to the Fox Valley Westfield mall with his friends and they decided to purchase a hookah from a shop called “The Cigar Box.” The shopkeeper told them about a special she had on herbal incense, in this case called IAroma, which came in a variety of flavors.

“[Max] had a conversation […] with his friend about how it must be safe because it was legal and marijuana was illegal.  So, it must be safer than marijuana.  His youth was his failing,” Karen Dobner wrote in her comprehensive blog for her foundation, To The Maximus.

Shortly after smoking the synthetic chemicals, Max’s friend left the house. Alone, Max became increasingly anxious, reaching out to his brother by phone for guidance on dealing with his panic and racing heartbeat. His brother, unaware of the hallucinations and delusions that often accompany a “spice” high, advised him to eat and rest. Half an hour later, Max was in his car, driving 80 miles per hour in a residential neighborhood before crashing into a home – never braking.

With up to 100 new compounds being created by amateur chemists each year, law enforcement is fighting an uphill battle to contain designer drugs.

Max wasn’t a frequent drug user, nor an irrational risk taker. His mom used to say, “Thank god I don’t have to worry about Max,” because he was such a “good kid.” So while the DEA scrambles to deal with the supply, it is concerned parents like Karen Dobner who are leading the helm in educating people to lower the demand for “fake pot.” She is now part of a panel advising on model legislation she hopes to see adopted eventually on the federal level. and she was an instrumental resource in the production of this segment.

She’s also already had a tremendous impact in Illinois.

”Because of the efforts of Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, law enforcers and legislators, Illinois may be the most improved state in the country, when it comes to synthetic drugs,” Dobner wrote on her website. “While other states are seeing an increase in synthetic drug use, all indications are that we are seeing a decrease in Illinois.”

It’s a glimmer of  hope in what can feel like an endless, and futile game of “cat and mouse.”

Dobner also believes that there are existing laws on the books, in nearly every state, that can be leveraged now to get these products out of stores and close the ever-widening loopholes. These laws cover deceptive marketing and mislabeling.

I spoke to Blake Heller, a Ventura County district attorney, about this. He confirmed it as a legislative option, but he is on a mission, along with the Port Hueneme Police Department featured in our piece, to clear the county of these drugs and said there is more satisfaction for “getting the guys for what they’re doing.”

“It’d be like getting Al Capone on taxes,” he said.

The challenge is that it only takes a chemist a few weeks to change a molecule and introduce a new synthetic drug to our streets. Law enforcement may not have the time to spare.There is no satisfaction for those family members who still have to drive by the gas stations or smoke shops where their deceased loved ones were able to able to purchase these dangerous and powerful compounds, wondering if there will ever be consequences for chemists and peddlers who choose profits over responsibility, treating US high schoolers like lab rats.       


To learn more about designer drugs, watch "TechKnow," Saturday 7ET/4PT.


Drugs, Police

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