Cops starting to target synthetic drugs

Bath salts and synthetic marijuana, two relatively new drugs that are technically legal because manufacturers keep reformulating them, are becoming an increasing concern for law enforcement because of their unpredictable effects.

The Georgia Pharmacy Board last month issued an emergency order that temporarily gives all state and local law enforcement officers the authority to seize the two products, even though the new formulations of synthetic marijuana aren't technically illegal and the persons selling them cannot be charged criminally.

Within days, several local police departments were taking on the charge. The Cherokee County Multi-Agency Narcotics Squad seized 6,200 packages of synthetic marijuana at locations in Canton, Woodstock, Ball Ground and Holly Springs.

The Gwinnett County District Attorney's office held a training session for about 100 police officers about synthetic drugs. The Gwinnett County Police Department is considering forming an informal task force to visit convenience stores, smoke shops and adult novelty stores where they they are being sold.

"We're going to seize it again and again every time we can, because it's dangerous" said Gwinnett Police spokesman Cpl. Jake Smith.

Synthetic marijuana contains the chemical equivalent of THC, the mind-altering ingredient in marijuana that is believed to be manufactured in China. The raw powder is shipped to the United States, where it is combined with acetone and fruit flavoring. The resulting liquid is sprayed onto bales of plant material and allowed to dry before being packaged in half-ounce bags and sold for $10 to $25 per package.

The final product, sometimes called "Spice" or "K2," is either smoked or chewed and can produce a high 27 times more potent than marijuana, said Rick Allen, director of the Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency.

By contrast, bath salts are powders or crystals that can be drunk, snorted or injected. They mimic the effects of ecstasy, but also can cause powerful hallucinations and paranoia.

Bath salts are usually sold alongside synthetic marijuana for about $15 or $20 for a half-ounce. Both synthetic drugs began appearing on the market around 2009, Allen said.

Synthetic marijuana has been blamed for the deaths of Peachtree City teenager Chase Burnett, who drowned in a hot tub after smoking it, and of Kelvin Melton, a 26-year-old Athens man who died of a heart condition brought on by its use.

Dakota Dyer, 14, of Bremen, committed suicide March 10 while under the influence of synthetic marijuana. His father, Lance Dyer, has been battling to get it outlawed ever since.

"The message is that it won't hurt you, it's legal," Dyer said. "It's a great marketing ploy. The problem is the product they are marketing can kill you."

Bath salts popped up on police radar because people tend to behave violently or erratically after ingesting them.

On June 14, Gwinnett County Police battled Karl Laventure, 21, who was bare-chested, ranting and threatening to eat people while roaming a golf course near Lilburn. The man charged at police and even pepper spray and 14 shocks with a Taser did not faze him. Several police officers finally wrestled Laventure to the ground to subdue him.

"This guy just had unnatural strength and felt zero pain," said Smith.

State lawmakers two years ago banned the known formulas of bath salts and synthetic marijuana. Bath salts are still illegal. However, manufacturers have been able to continually tweak the formula for synthetic marijuana to keep it legal. The General Assembly is expected to consider a broader ban on synthetic marijuana next year.