ORLANDO, Fla. — The names may sound harmless — incense, potpourri, spice, bath salts — but the synthetic drugs popular among Florida’s youth are anything but.
Those who have smoked synthetic marijuana and its cocainelike sister, bath salts, describe the experience as “crazy” and “retarded.” They recall a disturbing, mind-addling high.
The trips these drugs induce can trigger heart palpitations, vomiting, seizures, paranoia, violent outbursts, extreme agitation and psychotic episodes, say emergency room doctors, who call the reaction “excited delirium.”
Although a new crackdown by law enforcement is starting to curb the abuse, synthetic drugs continue to attract a vulnerable demographic: young men looking for an easily accessible thrill.
Although no official statistics exist, media reports have attributed at least nine deaths in Florida to synthetic drugs.
Still, young Floridians — users’ average age is 24, and 70 percent are male — think the drugs are OK because they’ve been sold at smoke shops and convenience stores.
“Because this stuff is sold in head shops, kids think it’s a safe way to get high,” said Dr. Timothy Huckaby, an addiction medicine specialist and medical director of the UF & Shands Florida Recovery Center at Orlando Health.
“That simply isn’t the case,” he said. “The synthetic version is three times more powerful than the marijuana sold on the street today.”
Interviews with Broward County teens in a drug rehab program revealed why the synthetic drug, sold in slick packaging, had become so popular during the past few years.
It’s not the high, the boys said. The reason is pragmatic: It’s still cheap, easy enough to find and effective at deceiving most drug tests.
“You have to understand: We’re teenagers. It doesn’t sound that bad to say, ‘Let’s smoke spice and be retarded for 30 minutes,’” said former user Sam Hathaway, 17, of Pembroke Pines, using synthetic marijuana’s street name.
“It literally changes your brain, like the way you think,” he said.
Another teen in the program, Nico Souberville, 18, of Miramar, said that after smoking the drug: “I wanted to do something crazy. I wanted to hurt someone.”
That these dangerous products ever made it to store shelves is a testament to drug designers’ illicit skills. Drugmakers tinker with their compounds in ways that not only skirt the law but also slip by drug tests.
“The bad guys are three to four steps ahead of law enforcement and five to six steps ahead of clinicians,” said Dr. Nabil El Sanadi, director of emergency medicine at the Broward Health System in Fort Lauderdale. El Sanadi said that patients often show up at his emergency room with signs of psychosis: hearing voices, hallucinating, with paranoid delusions of being chased or attacked.
Because no laws expressly banned them, the drugs manufactured in labs to mimic marijuana and cocaine were hanging in packets near the candy section in stores.
Although a statewide ban on such substances took effect a year ago, it wasn’t specific enough. Retailers got around it. Users knew which convenience stores continued to sell the stuff under the counter.
So in December, state Attorney General Pam Bondi issued a tougher ban, prohibiting 22 specific substances used in synthetic drugs.
Since then, law enforcers across Central Florida have been visiting convenience stores and head shops giving out one-time warnings.
Last month, Volusia County deputies inspected 172 convenience stores, smoke shops, liquor stores and other retailers throughout the county, said Sheriff’s Office spokesman Gary Davidson. They found 15 still selling the banned products.
The officers reminded store clerks of the new law and the penalty (a five-year prison sentence and fine of up to $5,000) for selling or possessing the products.
Similarly, Seminole County law enforcers have been visiting more than 350 retailers during the past several weeks, said Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Kim Cannaday.
Although the Orlando Police Department does not have a formal crackdown program, officers do routinely check convenience stores to be sure what they’re selling is legal, said spokesman Jim Young.
“We also look at city ordinances from across the state and what other departments are doing to address synthetic drugs to find ways to reduce these crimes,” he said. “The chemicals in these drugs are constantly changing, so it’s hard to keep up. The new law helps because it gives us more to go after.”
Still, those who want synthetic marijuana or bath salts can easily score them online. All they need is a credit card and an address, poison center officials said.
Mirroring a national trend, calls to state poison-information centers about synthetic marijuana and bath salts began rising in 2010. The Florida Poison Information Center in Tampa received 49 calls that year from five Central Florida counties and 81 calls last year, said Cynthia Lewis-Younger, poison center spokeswoman.
Calls about synthetic marijuana outnumber those related to bath salts by 6 to 1.
“The numbers are undoubtedly underreported,” said Lewis-Younger. They represent only the sickest patients. Many others suffer in silence, afraid of repercussions.
Call centers and doctors say the new law, combined with word spreading about the bad trips, is helping to curtail use of fake drugs. Some, however, worry that the crackdown is just pushing the use further underground.
“In my entire emergency medicine career, I have never been exposed to a substance so dangerous and so available,” said Dr. Dale Birenbaum, lead emergency room physician for Florida Hospital’s East Orlando campus.
Birenbaum estimates that he has seen a couple of dozen bad reactions, including cases that required law enforcers to use Tasers to control the subject.
Some users, especially those on bath salts, become very violent, he said. “That stuff is really, really dangerous, and is almost certainly solely responsible for some horrific crimes.”