For those choosing to experiment with synthetic drugs - specifically K2 or bath salts - the results could be deadly.
Linda B. Kalin, director of the Iowa Statewide Poison Control Center in Sioux City, appeared at Spencer Hospital presenting "the alphabet soup of synthetic drugs" before an audience of health care providers, nurses, emergency personnel, law enforcement officials, substance abuse workers, child advocates and concerned citizens.
"The use of new synthetic drugs is on the rise nationwide and in Iowa," Kalin said in a phone interview following her presentation. "There is a rise in the public health safety threat."
Synthetic drugs are designed for recreational use to evade legislation, Kalin's presentation suggested. She explained they are sold under the guise of plant food, bath salts, herbal incense, potpourri and glass cleaner. Nearly every one of the products are marked with "not intended for human consumption" and "not to be sold to people under 18 years of age," and are cheap, easy to make, offer high profits and are easily distributed.
Broken into two categories: Synthetic Cannabinoids - K2 or Spice - and marketed as fake weed or legal marijuana; and Synthetic Cathinones - or bath salts - and marketed as an alternative to cocaine, ecstasy and meth.
Kalin said those charged with providing care, and the public at large, need to understand the significant risks and potential impact of synthetic drugs.
"The bottom line is it poses challenges for everyone," Kalin insisted. Accessibility and availability are two of the main problems.
"And people are using these substances blindly," Kalin said. "Manufacturers have the ability to put any chemical in the package they want. Users are clueless as to the dangers of what they're using. And they don't know how much is too much until it's too late."
She added, "I've spoken in many communities - urban and very rural - and there isn't a community that hasn't seen it. ... We've seen a number of very serious issues and we've seen deaths."
Spencer Police Chief Mark Lawson confirmed the presence of synthetic drugs in the area.
"It's been here, we've had some calls," Lawson said. "Even at the high school, before kids got out for the summer, we had kids using and getting ill."
Kalin said medical professionals often are not sure what they're dealing with initially.
"We need to deliver care for the patient, but half the time we don't know what's in the package," she explained. "We don't have a good testing mechanism. We don't have a lot of testing or screening procedures. That's another challenge."
"I know there's some stuff going on that we're not aware of," Lawson said. "There are times when the people in charge might not know what's been ingested."
And synthetic drugs are no respecter of age. Kalin's case load has involved young teens to 57-year-old adults. Recent statistics suggest 60 percent of the users are under the age of 25, but Kalin pointed out that means 40 percent are over 25.
The numbers indicate that synthetic drugs are the second most commonly abused worldwide behind cannabis, but ahead of cocaine and heroin. In the past year, 11.4 percent of high school seniors admitted to having used K2 or Spice.
"Accessibility is a big part of it. It's purchasable. You don't get cocaine through an Internet website," Kalin said.
Often times the substance comes in a foil package marked not for human consumption. Sometimes the package is decorative. Celebrity faces are sometimes used. Kalin cited Snoop Dogg, Bob Marley and Charlie Sheen as examples.
In addition to keeping an eye out for packaging, Kalin encouraged parents and loved ones to look out for a dramatic shift in behavior.
Kalin stressed risks with K2 are greater than with marijuana
"It acts on the same receptors in the brain, but it's not cannabis. It's a popular alternative to smoking marijuana, but it's not the same. ... It has same ability to fully activate these brain receptors, but we have seen some extreme effects."
The most infamous Iowa case involved an Indianola teen, David Rozga, with no reported history of behavioral issues, who experienced severe paranoia after taking synthetic marijuana, got a shotgun from his home and took his own life.
In the case of the bath salts, Kalin used the term "zombie drug" because of the aggressive and violent behavior attributed to those using the drug.
"The case in Miami, with the cannibalistic behavior, is thought to be caused by bath salts, but toxicology isn't back yet," Kalin said, adding that the behavior matched the tendencies.
"Calm patients have demonstrated aggressive behavior; very aggressive, aggressive behavior. Multiple nurses have been needed to hold people down. Police haven't been able to control suspects with tasers."
"Self-mutilation, violent behavior, extreme panic attacks, agitation, hostility, suicide stuff -- all signs," the poison control center director explained.
Kalin noted the state legislature just passed a bipartisan bill on May 25, banning 43 substances common in the manufacture of synthetic drugs, and the governor signed it. The new ban came a year after the eight most common ingredients were first banned.
"It's like a giant game of whack-a-mole. You knock one down, the next one pops up," Kalin said. "But I think the state ban, which mirrors the federal ban, was a great thing."
"If we get word that this type of product is out there, we will go after it," Lawson said.
Kalin said the key is to make a difference through education and by people staying educated, which was the motivation behind her visit to Spencer.
"Our ultimate goal is making everybody aware of dangers of going down this path and potential health risks," Lawson agreed.
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