by Dr. Barry Logan
The news media has documented a growing trend in gruesome and violent “zombie-like” attacks in recent weeks. In Miami, a man was shot and killed by police while eating the face of another man. In Louisiana, a man bit off a chunk of his neighbor’s cheek. A woman in New York attacked her own three-year old child and then attempted to sink her teeth into a police officer. In Texas, a man tried to eat his family’s dog while the animal was still alive.
Shortly after the Miami attack, Pennsylvania Congressman Pat Meehan, a former U.S. Attorney, convened a meeting of local law enforcement, forensic scientists, drug experts, and school officials in Upper Merion, Pa. The goal of the meeting was to discuss the challenges posed by designer drugs
such as “bath salts” and synthetic marijuana, also commonly referred to as “fake pot.” Law enforcement officials noted that the biting and the animalistic behavior that occurred in Miami and other recent incidents is a common behavior exhibited by individuals high on bath salts.
The group discussed how these drugs are readily available and freely marketed online as household items like incense, plant food and bath salts. In some cases, they are sold in local neighborhoods at corner markets and gas stations. And although they typically have the disclaimer “not for human consumption” they are produced with the specific intention of being smoked or injected by people looking for a quick high.
A major concern is that the ease with which these drugs can be purchased on the internet has sparked a surge in use among teenagers. A recent study commissioned by the National Institute for Drug Abuse revealed that one in every nine high school seniors (11.4 percent) reported using synthetic marijuana in the prior 12 months. Many teens believe the products are safe, “legal” highs that will not be detected in a routine drug test, and will not arouse parental suspicion. Others appear to believe they are safer alternatives to marijuana and amphetamines such as cocaine, which they are designed to mimic. In reality, they appear to be far more dangerous.
Bath salts are known to cause agitation, paranoia, hallucinations, chest pain, suicidal tendencies, and the animalistic behavior shown in recent violent attacks. Synthetic marijuana poses its own risks because of the way it alters the brain’s chemistry and has been linked to numerous deaths. Last June, police said a teenager jumped off the roof of a mall parking garage in Willow Grove after smoking fake pot.
Given their misleading marketing, heightened availability, and adaptive “legality,” it is not surprising that last year Poison Control Centers received over thirteen thousand human exposure calls regarding synthetic cannabinoids and bath salts. Last year, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration took steps to ban the chemicals used to make these designer drugs. But many manufacturers responded by slightly altering the chemical makeup of the compounds, effectively skirting federal law. This led to a new round of increasingly volatile and dangerous drugs.
As Congressman Meehan and stakeholders discussed, addressing this growing problem requires a multi-pronged effort. From a legislative perspective, instead of reactively banning substances, lawmakers must proactively classify the new non-scheduled substances being constantly reformulated by manufacturers as analogs, making them illegal under federal law. Meehan said this must be accompanied by a focused effort to go after and take down the internet sites that peddle these dangerous drugs.
Similarly, we need a concerted education effort aimed not just at teenagers, but parents as well. They need to be informed about what these substances look like, how they are packaged and marketed, and the negative long and short-term effects of the substances which at best alter brain chemistry, and at worst induce violent behavior, and sometimes even death.
At the same time, we must work to expand our forensic testing capabilities to detect and identify the use of bath salts and synthetic marijuana. If we are able to detect the use of these drugs in blood and urine as easily as we can detect marijuana or cocaine, these synthetic drugs will cease to be an alternative for individuals who are seeking to evade detection in standard drug tests.
These synthetic drugs do not just pose a danger to abusers. They also endanger innocent bystanders, law enforcement, and anyone else an individual high on these substances may come in contact with. It is time to step up and tackle this problem head on.
Dr. Barry Logan is Director of Forensic and Toxicological Services for NMS Labs, in Willow Grove, Pa. and is President-Elect of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS). For more information on synthetic drugs, including a brochure for parents, visit www.nmslabs.com.