LETHAL HIGH: Channel 13’s Sonya Heitshusen investigates the sale of synthetic drugs in Iowa and the debate about whether they should be banned or regulated

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A new breed of synthetic marijuana and bath salts is showing up on the internet and in convenience stores.  Drug manufacturers are altering the compounds used to make inhalants, known as bath salts, incense and spice legal, but authorities say they remain lethal.

This is just one of the 9-1-1 calls received by Des Moines Fire and Rescue regarding synthetic marijuana last year.

Dispatcher:  “Des Moines Fire and Rescue… What’s the problem?”  Caller:  “I can’t – every time I walk, I’m about to black out.  I don’t know what’s up.”  Dispatcher:  “Are you in pain?”  Caller:  “Yah, my head hurts and my stomach hurts.”  Dispatcher:  “Okay, do you know what’s causing this?”  Caller:  “I don’t know.  I think it could be from smoking that synthetic stuff that I tried.”

That synthetic stuff is known as incense, spice, potpourri and bath salts.  It’s packaged under names like “Green Planet” and “100% Pure Evil.”  It’s sold in stores like the Conoco on 63rd Street in West Des Moines.

We took our hidden camera into the store and asked for the “Pure Evil” product.  The clerk sold us one gram for $13.  It’s the same synthetic marijuana that sent Samantha Ekstein’s son to the hospital last November.

“I thought he was going to die before I could get there,” says Ekstein.  “When I walked into the room, he did not know my name.  He didn’t know my mother’s name.  He didn’t know my phone number.  It took him five hours to come out of this.”

“We know that some of these products, whatever is in these packages, that teenagers are smoking the stuff and they’re winding up in hospital emergency rooms,” says Dale Woolery, the Acting Director for the Governor’s Office of Drug Control Policy.

Woolery says these drugs were virtually unheard of until August of 2010.  Since then, the number of known hospital visits resulting from synthetic marijuana and bath salts has jumped nearly 3000%.

Doctors say they’re now treating people who’ve ingested synthetic drugs on a weekly basis.

“The sad thing is first time users may have the worst experience of all,” says Dr. Thomas McAuliff, a pediatric emergency physician at Mercy Medical Center.  “They may die instantly.”

And kids aren’t the only ones using it.  This is a 9-1-1 call placed from actress Demi Moore’s home in January.

Caller: “Is an ambulance on the way?”  Dispatcher:  “Hold on mam, hold on.  Okay, tell me exactly what happened.”  Caller:  “Okay, uh, she smoked, uh, something.  It’s not marijuana, but it’s similar to incense and she seems to be having convulsions of some sort.”

“They have chemicals in them, that we can’t even put a name on them,” says McAuliff.

That’s part of the problem.  It makes it difficult for doctors to treat patients sickened by the drugs, and it makes it difficult for authorities to prosecute people selling them.

“I’m guessing a lot of law enforcement agencies that have submitted samples are waiting for results and can’t really do much until they have those results,” says Woolery.

The contents of one package may be legal and the contents of another, illegal.  There are also variations in potency from package to package, due in part to the lack of uniformity in the application process, which often takes place in make-shift, mom and pop labs.

“I kind of picture someone like at a carwash with a sprayer, applying some of these synthetic substances to otherwise organic material and one of the issues is it doesn’t get applied evenly,” says Woolery.  “This is not a scientific process, even though we talk about a lot of chemistry.”

Woolery has asked businesses to voluntarily stop selling the synthetic drugs, but profits often outweigh ethics, especially when some stores are selling up to $3,000 worth of the product a day.

We decided to ask the person who sold us the incense why – even though it may be dangerous – it’s still for sale at his store.

“If they’re doing something wrong, I don’t know.  I have no idea,” says Roz, the clerk, who refused to give us his last name.  “You know, I don’t know.  It’s incense.  It’s legal.  So it’s legal, if everybody’s selling it.  Every store is selling it.”

Samantha Ekstein’s son bought the incense that sent him to the hospital at Super Quick Liquors on Southeast 30th Street in Des Moines.  We showed the clerk the receipts, but she refused to answer our questions.

“If you’re not from the cop, I’m not going to talk to you.  That’s all.  If you have anything that shows that you’re from the cop, then I will talk to you.”

Woolery believes most stores are selling the synthetic drugs with “a wink and a nod.”

That could change with the passage of HR 1254, also known as The Synthetic Drug Control Act of 2011.  It would make all synthetic drugs illegal.  The list of compounds included in the bill reads like a chemistry book.  But some say banning them will only make matters worse.

“It’s a problem that can’t be dealt with the same way that we’ve dealt with these other things (illicit street drugs),” says Daniels Francis, the Executive Director of the Retail Compliance Association.

Its website says its purpose is to protect the interest of small business from illegal search and seizure, profiling, harassment and other forms of government intimidation.

Francis says scientists will simply create new compounds to replace those that are banned.  So rather than ban synthetic drugs, Francis believes the government should regulate them.  Proposals include limiting the sale of synthetic drugs to people over the age of 21, limiting the places that sell them to adult venues, like smoke shops and adult book stores and prohibiting the advertisement of synthetic drugs.

“In our research here at the RCA, we’ve tested things that are frightening,” says Francis.  “That’s why regulation is necessary.  There’s got to be some sort of written guidance, some sort of written accountability, now that the product is out there and known.”

Woolery admits the drugs are so new, there’s not a lot known about them.  Still, he leans toward a ban, rather than regulations.

“I guess I would rather eliminate or prevent the danger all together.”

So would parents like Samantha Ekstein, “You need to be aware of it… and I don’t know about anyone else, but 17 years of raising a child, I’m not willing to give him up.”