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Western Pennsylvania battling designer drugs tweaked to skirt the law

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Pennsylvania State Police display synthetic marijuana as evidence during a press conference at the Greensburg barracks on April 27, 2012. Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review
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Bath salts were seized by North Huntingdon Police during a recent drug raid. (Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review)
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Trooper Steve Limani holds a container of synthetic marijuana during a press conference at the Pennsylvania State Police barracks in Greensburg on April 27, 2012. Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review
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The American Association of Poison Control Centers said 2,609 synthetic marijuana cases were reported to the nation's 57 poison control centers in 2009. That number jumped to nearly 7,000 cases in 2011. Photo submitted

A battle to wipe the streets clean of designer drugs with quirky names like K2, Spice and Molly is being thwarted by crafty drug-makers who tweak their recipes just enough to skirt state and federal laws, officials say.

In the past year, legislation banning the man-made hallucinogens that make users appear incoherent, but feel invincible, has been quickly signed into law to stem the explosive growth of the substances.

But in Western Pennsylvania and elsewhere, law enforcement officials say the drugs — often concoctions of herbs treated with chemicals — are still out there, prompting frantic calls to poison control centers and violent incidents linked to users’ erratic behavior.

“The problem that we all face in enforcing these laws is the fact that people who make these drugs will alter the makeup … just enough to get around the laws,” said Gary Davis, assistant special agent in charge of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration in Pittsburgh.

“The challenge … is (that) a chemist can tweak a molecule or two, and you’ve technically got a new drug (that may or may not be addressed in the law),” DEA spokeswoman Barbara Carreno said.

Davis said that for the criminals, it’s all about supply and demand.

“As long as there’s a demand, criminals will find a way to make the drugs available,” Davis said.

In the region, police report dealing with three types of designer drugs:

• Synthetic marijuana, also called K2 or Spice, which is smoked.

• Bath salts, a crystalline or powder stimulant like methamphetamine, that is snorted, injected or smoked.

• Molly, a powdered form of Ecstasy, the first designer drug, which has fallen out of favor with users because more powerful substances are available. Molly is snorted or swallowed.

Before the ban, the drugs were sold openly in convenience stores, gas stations and tobacco shops, often packaged as incense, but selling for upward of $50 for a small package, Davis said.

Officials are troubled by recent reports that most users are between age 15 and 22, according to Rita Mrvos of the Pittsburgh Poison Control Center where calls about the drugs increased tenfold from 2010 through 2011.

A study by the Office of National Drug Control Policy showed that 11.4 percent of 12th-graders used Spice or K2 in the past year.

But Mrvos said, “My thought is if the legislation wouldn’t have been passed probably (synthetic drugs) would have become a lot more popular here.”

One of the sponsors of that bill, Sen. Elder Vogel, a Republican whose district includes parts of Allegheny, Beaver and Lawrence counties, said the legislation was broadly written to include as many drugs as possible because lawmakers realized criminals would attempt to evade prosecution.

As the drug culture evolves, Vogel said lawmakers may have to revisit the law to keep pace with drug activity.

Still on sale

Despite the laws, some stores are still selling the substances “under the counter,” according to veteran Westmoreland County narcotics detective Tony Marcocci, who said the drugs are becoming more and more potent.

In a Tribune-Review spot check of 10 stores in the region, no synthetic drugs were seen.

Marcocci said the substances, which increase users’ heart rates and blood pressure, are made in “some back corner” shops with no quality control, so they have no idea what they’re ingesting.

The federal Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration is gathering data from hospital emergency rooms nationwide to determine if there have been deaths specifically related to synthetic drugs. Researchers are still uncertain about the long-term effects of the drugs.

Locally, there has been at least one indirect death of someone who used one of the substances.

A Westmoreland County boy died last year after smoking synthetic marijuana in a PEZ candy dispenser, which destroyed his lungs. A doctor at the time said that smoking the drug in the plastic dispenser would have been a “significant factor” in the 14-year-old’s death because of the toxicity of the plastic.

Authorities working undercover have been able to shut down a number of local operations selling designer drugs with “fancy names and really clever packaging” to stay under the radar, according to Trooper Steve Limani, spokesman for the state police in Greensburg.

Sellers label their products “not for human consumption” so they can protect themselves, but the problem is, they know they can be used for human consumption,” Davis said.

In April, police raided a Latrobe gas station, seizing about 150 ounces of synthetic marijuana, called “Black Magic Smoke” and “Darkness.”

Last month, police in North Huntingdon police seized bath salts, Molly and Ecstasy pills from a township apartment.

Federal officials are targeting out-of-country Internet operations that mail the drugs to buyers in the United States.

This summer, in the first nationwide push against the synthetic drug industry, which included targets in Pennsylvania, more than 90 arrests were made and 5 million packets of designer drugs were seized along with $36 million in cash, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The raid, called “Operation Log Jam,” targeted the top of the synthetic drug supply chain, Carreno said.

Though many of the designer drugs seized in the raid are not specifically prohibited, the federal law allows the drugs to be treated as controlled substances if they mimic controlled substances, she said.

State officials also are clamping down.

This spring, in a statewide sweep called “Operation Artificial High,” officers seized more than 300,000 doses of synthetic marijuana and bath salts across the state with an estimated street value of $1.25 million, according to the Attorney General’s Office.

In the meantime, Marcocci, who has fought the war on drugs for 25 years as a narcotics detective, cites an urgency about getting synthetic drugs off the streets because of the unpredictable, bizarre behavior they cause in users.

“With those hallucinogenic properties, God only knows what they’re going to do,” Marcocci said.

Rossilynne Skena is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6646 or [email protected].

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