"Some people think mistakenly that because something is legal,
that it is OK and it doesn't have any harmful side effects," said
Dr. Stevan Vuckovic, associate medical director of Franciscan St.
Anthony's emergency department in Crown Point.
In the first two weeks of June alone, Indiana's Poison Center
fielded about 30 calls relating to bath salts from emergency rooms
in Lake and Porter counties.
While Ron's switch to bath salts from cocaine was supposed to
save money and provide a legal alternative, he said it landed him
in an ER bed within three months. He had lost 30 pounds, his
appetite, his ability to sleep and his home after Nancy had enough
of the lies he told to hide his addiction.
Now reunited with his family and in the beginning stages of
rehab, Ron says he never imagined he would have gotten hooked so
"You will not know you are addicted until it is too late," he
said. "The next thing you know, you've got all your things packed
in a vehicle, you have no where to go and you have the police
looking for you."
While people have a personal responsibility to make wise
decisions, Ron said he felt the federal government should prevent
harmful products such as bath salts from being sold.
"They failed us on this one, man," he said. "Completely failed
What's in a name?
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
"They are 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 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
"(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
"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.
"As far as where it is from or what people do with it, I have no
idea," the employee said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Banning the bad
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
"People that are inventing these drugs, if they change a
molecule or two off, it is not deemed an illegal substance,"
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
On Friday, selling or possessing most synthetic marijuana -- 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
According to the website of one Internet company, K2incense.org,
its "new products are 100 percent legal!" It claims its products
are not for human consumption and that K2 is safe -- but it goes on
to say consumers should watch out for counterfeit K2 that could
contain illegal chemicals and be dangerous.
Wichern called the proclamations that only K2 counterfeits pose
health risks a "marketing ploy."
While the website attacked "basement chemists" making knockoffs
of the K2 brand, the site declined to reveal the K2 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 K2incense.org
Legal highs yield personal, community lows
The adverse effects of using synthetic marijuana and bath salts
include heart palpitations and increased blood pressure, according
to doctors. With bath salts alone, possible effects include
hallucinations, extreme paranoia and seizures. And in the past six
months, doctors say they have seen complications related to the
synthetics spread across the region.
Therapists from Franciscan St. Margaret Health's Behavioral
Health Center said in one of their cases, a man shot himself in the
face while under the influence of bath salts. In May, police in
Jasper County found a DeMotte woman known to abuse bath salts
sitting on the bed in a damaged hotel room, muttering about evil
spirits and needing to scribble on the walls to protect herself
Doctors said chemicals in some bath salts are similar to meth,
which is considered one of the most addictive illegal drugs,
according to Detective Jaime Harris of the Lake County Sheriff's
Harris said the Sheriff's Department has seen isolated incidents
involving abuse of designer drugs such as bath salts, but not a
major influx. He said it was more common for them to encounter
cocaine, heroin and marijuana, though that did not mean synthetic
drugs were not a concern for the county.
Moreover, drug issues in general affect the entire community, he
"In my opinion, the vast majority of the crimes that we
encounter are due to narcotic-related users," Harris said. "Our
burglaries that we deal with, our car jackings, our auto theft, a
significant amount of murders are directly related to the narcotics
For those on probation or parole, bath salts and fake marijuana
are the substances of choice because the compounds cannot be
detected in the average urine drug test, said Allen Grecula,
director of education at the Frontline Foundations substance-abuse
facility that has worked with such clients.
Tests for certain compounds have had to go to a special lab as
far away as Pennsylvania, and last month AIT Laboratories in
Indianapolis announced it will be one of the first labs in the
country to offer special urine testing for synthetic marijuana. But
the average urinary drug test cannot detect these designer drugs,
"It can seem like a great idea ... until you see the compounded
effects," Grecula said, adding that the facility treats clients
addicted to synthetics as they would those dependent on cocaine and
For Ron, the one-time cocaine user now reunited with his family,
bath salts gave him the euphoria without the physical nasal
side-effects that come with snorting cocaine.
No one at work or in public knew he was on it, he said. And
though he felt energized and could not sit still -- sometimes
working on home improvement projects into the early hours of the
morning -- Ron said using the synthetic drug to get through the day
was one of the worst decisions he made.
He said he hoped sharing his story would dissuade others from
experimenting with bath salts.
"You just don't know how severe it can be," he said.