Updated: 03/13/2013 6:04 AM KSTP.com By: Naomi Pescovitz
They have non-threatening names like "spice" or "bath salts," but they are dangerous and have been deadly. Synthetic drugs are blamed for sending 11,000 people to US emergency rooms in 2010.
There are laws banning the chemical compounds they contain but makers are finding loopholes, creating new versions faster than states can expand their bans.
Synthetic drugs could have ruined the lives 21-year-old Cat Ryan and 22-year-old Nate Wilson, both now a part of the Minnesota Teen Challenge program.
"I didn't know if I was having a heart attack, or what was going on," said Cat Ryan, describing a panic attack he experienced when using "K2," or synthetic marijuana.
"I have friends that are in prison now because of selling it, another kid's heart exploded because of it. They are not safe," Nate Wilson said.
Starting in his teens, Wilson was more than experimenting.
"That was my label. I was known as the person that could get the people these crazy drugs," Wilson said.
Wilson knows the challenge law enforcement faces when fighting the ever-changing world of synthetic drugs.
"They used to always come out with new different kinds of K2 just with a different ingredient in it," Wilson said.
Representative Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, is now proposing a bill that would make it a crime to sell or possess synthetic drug "look-alikes."
"It still looks like the same product, and clearly the intent is there that they want to sell this stuff so that people can get high with it," Simonson said.
"You're walking on thin ice, you really have no idea what you are getting yourself into," Wilson said.
Last year, Governor Dayton signed a bill expanding the list of synthetic drugs. It also gave the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy more authority to define other substances. Selling some of the drugs is now a felony. But the drug makers are crafty.
"The problem is as soon as you put something into statute that includes a list of ingredients, all they have to do is change one ingredient and then they are back to selling quote-unquote legal products again," Simonson said.
"Under the new statute from last year and under this one, it would make it perfectly clear. You can't stuff whatever you want in a bag and try to peddle it as a drug with a wink and a nod and say, 'but don't consume it,'" said Rice County Attorney Paul Beaumaster.
The Minnesota Board of Pharmacy is also working with legislators to get new drugs on the list of banned substances as they come out.
38 states ban both synthetic marijuana and so-called "bath salts." Most others outlaw one or the other. Lawmakers in Indiana and Rhode Island are currently working on legislation to broaden their bans, similar to what is being proposed in Minnesota.
"I'm sure that they'll try to figure out a way around this law too but this one is a little bit broader in the sense that at least they won't be able to just get around the law by changing the chemical makeup of the produce that they are selling," Simonson said.