SALINA, Ks. – After Kansas law enforcement agencies got wind of people smoking a synthetic form of marijuana called K-2 last year, they went straight to the Kansas Legislature and got a new law banning the active ingredients. Problem solved, right? Well as Bryan Thompson reports, turns out it's not that simple.
The product called K-2 is marketed as incense or potpourri. The label says it's not intended for human consumption. But law enforcement officials said it was being smoked by people who were on parole or probation. They used it because it produced a high similar to marijuana, but would not show up in a urinalysis test.
The main active ingredients in K-2 are chemicals named JWH. Those are the initials of John W. Huffman, a medicinal chemist who invented the compounds while doing basic scientific research at Clemson University. Huffman and his lab team invented hundreds of these compounds over the past 15 years.
"Altogether right now, we're over 450," says Huffman. "Some of the compounds are very potent, lots of them don't do anything."
Lawmakers had just added the K-2 compounds to the list of controlled substances when new products, using some of Huffman's other compounds, began to appear across the state in cities like Lawrence, Kansas City, and Hutchinson. Salina became a hot spot for sale and use of this so-called "potpourri", according to Salina Police Lieutenant Jim Norton, who heads a Drug Task Force in central Kansas.
"The problem with the potpourri, you gotta understand, we had three individuals in salina making their own potpourri," Norton says. "And two of them I would consider very large operations. So absolutly, Salina was covered in potpourri."
And as the number of users grew, police and emergency medical personnel began to notice an alarming trend last September.
"The Salina police department can show 62 incidents where people were taken to the hospital during that fall and winter period. 95 or 100 percent of those 62 were all potpourri ingestion," Norton says. "Everybody was admitting potpourri ingestion."
Their symptoms included elevated blood pressure, and a heartbeat that was racing wildly to the point that it scared them enough to call an ambulance. In some cases they experienced hallucinations, and difficulty breathing.
At about the same time these potpourri cases were peaking, another designer drug was beginning to show up in emergency rooms.
"'Bath salts' is a street name," Norton says.
These "bath salts" contain a chemical known by the letters MDPV, according to Dr. Tama Sawyer. She's a toxicologist who heads the poison control center at the University of Kansas Hospital. Sawyer says MDPV is similar to methamphetamine, and causes hallucinations and extreme paranoia. She says once people begin using "bath salts," they find it very difficult to quit.
"It hits a part of the brain that says, 'I need more.' So you're constantly trying to feed the dragon," says Dr. Saywer.
Sawyer says the number of calls to poison centers because of bath salts has exploded over the past year.
"Between January and April of this year, we've had 1800 calls," Dr. Sawyer says.
And the bath salts are a danger not only to the user, but to those around them, according to Dr. Keir Swisher. He's the co-medical director of the emergency department at Salina Regional Health Center.
"I walk into the room and the patient is screaming. It takes five or six adults to hold them down, and we have to give them essentially tranquilizers to try and calm them down so they don't try and harm themselves or us," Dr. Swisher.
Swisher says people who use designer drugs may not realize what they're getting into, because the products are sold openly.
"The would say, 'It's legal, I don't have to have a license to buy it, so I assume it's safe for me to use,'" Dr. Swisher says. "And in the process of speaking with them about it, they didn't know what to expect. They assumed it was safe."
A bill passed by Kansas lawmakers this session is designed to keep law enforcement from having to continually play catch up with drug-makers who switch to a new compound every time the one they're using is outlawed. The measure, which is now awaiting the governor's signature, would ban entire classes of chemicals.
Meanwhile, emergency physician Keir Swisher thinks the most effective way to get people to avoid designer drugs is not tougher laws, but better education about how dangerous these compounds really are. That's why he's been giving presentations at high schools all around the Salina area.
"Information is power, and to know exactly would could possibly happen to you in my opinion, will keep people from using them," says Dr. Swisher. "You're not going to stop everybody. Some people understand they're going to roll the dice, but keeping the 13, 14 and 15-year-olds from going and buying it after school, going home and using it, and then coming in by ambulance because they're beating each other up is something I would like to stop completely."
Update: Kansas Governor Sam Brownback has since signed a law banning broad classes of chemicals used in designer drugs like 'bath salts' and 'K-2.' The Missouri legislature also passed similar legislation this session.