Consumers abusing legal synthetic versions of cocaine, meth, marijuana

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency would like to do more, said DEA Special Agent Will Taylor, but the companies producing the synthetic drugs are exploiting legal loopholes to avoid prosecution.

K2 incense is marked clearly ‘not for human consumption,’ and that’s a way a lot of these manufacturers and distributors are able to circumvent the law,” said Taylor, who is based in Chicago.

With a nudge and a wink, companies market synthetic marijuana, such as K2 incense and Spice, as incense, and sell cocaine and meth knockoffs as plant food and bath salts, he said.

But the products are anything but what they are portrayed to be, said Dr. Brent Furbee, medical director of the Indiana Poison Center.

“(There’s) probably the same difference between a bar of Dove soap and a package of methamphetamine,” Furbee said, comparing the abused bath salts with what many use to soak in the tub.

And with no quality control standards for these designer drugs, the chemical concentrations could vary among packets of the same brand.

“You don’t know what other agents are being dumped into the bag that you’re using, you don’t know what kind of contaminants there are,” said St. Anthony’s Vuckovic.

Few even know where the products are manufactured.

Synthetic cannabinoids were developed and researched by universities in the 1960s and drug maker Pfizer in the 1970s, according to the American College of Emergency Physicians.

Taylor said some of the recent incarnations of the cannabinoids and bath salts have been traced to China, India and regions of the U.S. But because present-day manufacturers are constantly developing new, legal alternatives, they are not technically breaking the law — and, in turn, tracking them is often not within DEA jurisdiction, Taylor said.

An employee at a local store that sold an incense brand commonly used as synthetic marijuana did not know where the products originated, and declined to name a distributor.

How to go about banning k2 incense, a continuously changing drug?

A drug is classified as a controlled substance, and therefore illegal in the eyes of the DEA, based on its chemical compounds, said Dennis Wichern, DEA assistant special agent in charge for Indiana. The constant evolution of designer drugs can give federal agents fits.

“People that are inventing these drugs, if they change a molecule or two off, it is not deemed an illegal substance,” Wichern said.

Outlawing the new substances requires the necessary time to conduct research on the long- and short-term effects. But in the interim, the DEA can place certain chemicals on an emergency controlled-substances list for a one-year period — and in March, five compounds used in synthetic marijuana were added to the list.

On Friday, selling or possessing most synthetic marijuana, k2 incense — but not bath salts —  became illegal in Indiana. Illinois instituted a similar ban in January.

DEA agents in Indiana are working on a few cases in light of the five compounds being made illegal, Wichern said, but he could not release details due to the ongoing investigations.

“Whether they materialize into something or not remains to be seen,” he said.

But because the synthetics are legally defined by their chemical structures, many companies started marketing new marijuana knockoffs before the law even went into effect. These updated versions do not contain any of the 25-plus chemicals banned in state or federal laws.

The Federal Analog Act addresses the synthetic knockoffs of already controlled substances, but one has to prove businesses intend for consumers to ingest the products, the DEA’s Taylor said.

According to the website of one Internet company, K2-incense*.org, its “new products are 100 percent legal!” It claims its products are not for human consumption and that K2 incense is safe — but it goes on to say consumers should watch out for counterfeit K2 incense that could contain illegal chemicals and be dangerous.

Wichern called the proclamations that only K2 incense counterfeits pose health risks a “marketing ploy.”

While the website attacked “basement chemists” making knockoffs of the K2 incense brand, the site declined to reveal the K2 incense manufacturer, citing a “contractual agreement.”

Taylor said the DEA finds it suspicious the companies are selling such small amounts for such high prices — 3 grams for $20 to $30, for instance — just for incense purposes, when consumers could go buy real bath salt in bulk for much less.

The Times was unable to connect with someone from K2-incense*.org for comment.