ANDERSON — State lawmakers are poised to expand the definition of synthetic drugs and suspend the retail licenses of business owners convicted of possessing or selling them to combat a growing national epidemic.
Earlier legislation sought to eliminate products marketed as “bath salts” and “plant food,” sold under a variety of names such as “Ivory Wave” and “Blizzard.”
But by making small changes in product composition and labeling them “not for human consumption,” manufacturers were able to skirt laws intended to ban the substances, said Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson.
Austin is shepherding Senate Bill 234 and House Bill 1196 through the Legislature. Both measures rename “synthetic cannabinoids” to “synthetic drugs” to clarify and expand the definition of synthetic drugs.
“What we’re doing is closing some of the loopholes,” Austin said. “It is my hope that through this legislation, we will be able to stop the use of these substances for illegal purposes.”
The products are generally sold in adult stores, independently-owned convenience stores, gas stations, head shops and skateboard shops, according to experts.
Bath salts became popular beginning in 2009 because they were considered a “legal” high for users. But they are highly toxic stimulant that is similar to methamphetamine,
“These synthetic drugs attack the body the same way that drugs such as meth and cocaine would,” Austin said. “It is vital that we do not give the impression that these are safe substances.”
Dr. Timothy J. Kelly, medical director of Fairbanks, an Indianapolis addiction treatment center, called the use of bath salts a serious problem that seems to be gaining momentum.
“I think this is a big problem and it is really shocking that you can go into a retail establishment and buy these drugs,” he said.
He said the drugs are extremely powerful stimulants and very addictive. Their use can cause an elevated heart rate, sleep deprivation, agitation, paranoia, hallucinations, possibly seizures, or irrational and psychotic behavior.
Austin said bath salts have already been linked to several deaths in southern Indiana.
Although most of his patients are younger, Kelly said “I have seen at least one person who was in their 40s try this .... If you are an addictive prone person and try this, the chances are you can become addicted.”
There were no bath salt-related calls to U.S. poison control centers in 2009 and only 302 in 2010, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Justice, National Drug Intelligence Center. In 2011, however, the number of calls exploded to more than 2.230.
State law enforcement officials are seeing similar increases.
In 2011, just 1.7 percent of drug analysis tests performed by the Indiana State Police involved synthetic drugs, said Maj. Ed Littlejohn, commander of the Laboratory Division. Last month, he said, that number was 12.1 percent.
For Austin and other lawmakers, the answer is simple.
“This is something that we need to remove from our shelves entirely,” she said.