What you need to know about designer drugs

Story Highlights

Synthetic drugs are often sold as harmless perfumes or household items

The DEA has stepped up its attempts to target those selling these drugs

CDC is investigating dozens of illnesses and 3 deaths possibly linked to fake pot


Spices, bath salts, herbal incense.

They look like something you might find in the perfume aisle at Target, but they’re actually dangerous drugs disguised as harmless perfumes, sold in convenience stores and online.

Innocent names like Mr. Smiley hide the dangers.

Nobody really knows what’s in these so-called synthetic drugs. Manufacturers are playing a dangerous game of cat and mouse with law enforcement by constantly changing the chemical compounds of drugs to circumvent existing laws.

Teenager recovers after smoking synthetic pot

Last week, Colorado health authorities announced that they – along with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – were investigating a spate of hospitalizations and three deaths believed to be the result of smoking synthetic marijuana. And real marijuana is legal in Colorado.

CNN’s Drew Griffin, who gained exclusive access to a federal synthetic drug sweep earlier this year, spoke with John Scherbenske, a Drug Enforcement Administration official who oversees its synthetic drugs and chemicals section. .

Scherbenske helped shed light on these manufactured drugs and why the DEA has stepped up its attempts to target those selling these drugs and raise awareness of the dangers.

Here’s what you need to know:

What exactly are designer drugs?

There is no exact definition, as the term is used to describe a wide range of ever-changing chemicals. Synthetic marijuana and “bath salts” are the most common of these drugs, which are often sold as incense or herbal food. Unlike drugs such as marijuana and cocaine, these drugs do not come from plants; they are man-made. Synthetic marijuana consists of chemicals that are sprayed onto plant material and sometimes marketed as potpourri.

While methamphetamine and MDMA – also known as “ecstasy” or “molly” – are technically synthetic drugs because they are made entirely from chemicals, the term “synthetic drugs” generally refers to bath salts and synthetic marijuana that are often sold in stores and online. as household items.

When did they start appearing in the United Statess and who uses them?

These drugs first appeared in the United States around 2009, according to Scherbenske, and have since exploded in popularity, especially among teenagers.

“The largest population of users of these drugs are 12 to 17 year olds,” Scherbenske said. He believes they’re popular with young people “because they’re readily available,” whether at a convenience store, smokehouse or online.

Social media-savvy teens are using the internet to spread the word about where to find these drugs in order, as Scherbenske explains, to “discuss the effects of these substances on their bodies.”

Why make synthetic drugs?

Well, synthetic drug manufacturers have easy access to customers by marketing these drugs as harmless household items. So they earn a lot of money.

“It’s a very profitable business,” Scherbenske said. “There have been multi-million dollar seizures – cash seizures with these people selling these drugs.”

Are these drugs legal?

This is a tricky question because the laws cannot keep up with the variety of chemical compounds.

The federal government and at least 38 states have taken action to ban the substances. But, as soon as a compound is banned, the molecular structure of the synthetic product is changed and that “changes the whole structure of the drug, so the drug becomes legal and we start over,” DEA chief James Capra. operations, said at a press conference in June, according to Time magazine.

Retailers are also circumventing the law by labeling drugs as “not for human consumption,” according to the DEA’s Scherbenske.

“It’s a cat and mouse game that these retailers are playing,” he said. “There is an underground market that knows exactly how to abuse this product to get high.”

Everyone knows that drugs are harmful. So what’s wrong with these?

Most of the drug manufacturers aim to refine their drug for purity, to increase the market value and their profit margin. But with synthetic drugs, the main goal of the manufacturers is to modify the chemical compound to stay ahead of the law.

“The United States has encountered more than 200 new substances over the past four years,” Scherbenske explained. “Our chemists find multiple drugs, multiple compounds when we buy those drugs.”

And that means there is no standard when it comes to these drugs.

“When we buy these substances and send them to the lab, they may contain one compound or five separate compounds.”

The combination of these compounds and their reactions “is very scary,” Scherbenske said.

“We don’t know the long-term effect this will have on a person’s body.”

Emily Bauer went from being a normal 16-year-old to nearly dying after trying a form of synthetic marijuana packaged as “potpourri” that she and her friends bought at a gas station. His family believe the drug caused several strokes, which limited his physical and mental abilities.

Synthetic drugs also have “unpredictable effects on human behavior,” according to Dr. Paul Adams, who works in an emergency room in Miami.

“It’s a terrible drug because it takes a combination of meth, and the paranoia and the aggression, and the LSD, the hallucinations, and the PCP, the extreme paranoia you get, (and) combines it into one alone,” Adams explained.

Police in Panama City, Florida reported two violent incidents related to the use of bath salts in 2011. In one, a woman allegedly attempted to behead her 71-year-old mother; in the second, a man on bath salts used his teeth to tear apart the backseat of a patrol car.

This is particularly troublesome when some retailers market synthetic drugs as a safer legal alternative.

Which do this stuff?

Most of the chemicals used to make these synthetic drugs come directly from China, according to the DEA’s John Scherbenske.

“They ship the product in bulk here in the United States, where we have individuals who will take this product and package it for retail distribution,” he explained.

According to a recent Time magazine article, the drugs come mainly from “suburban labs around Chinese port cities…from where they can be easily shipped to Europe or North America using regular international courier services” .

They’re also available in larger quantities and sold on the Internet as “research chemicals,” according to Time.

The DEA is “in dialogue” with China on the issue, Scherbenske said, without giving details.

“We are also in dialogue and in conversation with our international counterparts who face the same problems as we do in this synthetic drug problem,” he said. “That’s one of the ways to combat this problem through demand reduction and education of the people who use these products.”

So who sells it here in the United States?

Scherbenske says people start their own businesses to sell these drugs once they see the profit potential.

“And they are starting to organize themselves,” he added. “Is it organized crime? Not at this stage, but they are finding ways to circumvent our laws. They make millions of dollars figuring out how to launder that money. We don’t even know if they pay taxes on that money.

These retailers have even sued the federal government to protect their business: Four stores sued the DEA in 2011, claiming the federal agency was “obstructing their business,” Scherbenske said.

“We have no problem with people selling legitimate items. But when you sell basic rat poison to our kids, we’re not okay with that.

Alvin J. Chase