Program aims to attack synthetic drugs problems

K2. Spice. Bath salts. PB-22.

In whatever guise, by whatever name, synthetic drugs continue to be dangerous. Responding to the problem is the subject of a symposium Thursday sponsored by Montgomery County Alcohol Drug Addiction Mental Health Services and the Greater Dayton Area Hospital Association.

The drugs are insidious because health-care providers and those who respond to emergencies don’t know what’s in them. Drug-makers often tweak the chemical compounds to “stay one step ahead of the law,” Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said Monday. That means neither users nor physicians know what’s in them.

“If you ask me what’s the biggest drug problem in this state, I would say heroin,” DeWine said. “It (synthetic drugs) is not heroin. Still, some people die from taking this stuff. They get really, really messed up.”

Convenience stores, other stores, sometimes put these behind the counter, sometimes in plain view, labeled “not for human consumption,” DeWine noted.

“We see the results when we have overdoses and people have to go to the hospital,” he said. “We see it in the crime lab.”

Because chemical composition can be so fluid, it’s difficult to track whether usage is increasing. But Dan Tierney, a spokesman for DeWine, said the state’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation is seeing more requests to test the substances in its labs.

“I think the big challenge with the synthetic drugs, is one, the person using these synthetic drugs is not entirely sure what’s in them,” said Bryan Bucklew, GDAHA president and chief executive.

Last week, the Ohio Pharmaceutical Board banned two chemical compounds — known as PB-22 and 5F-PB-22 — as illegal.

While he welcomed the move, DeWine said it took his office nearly a year to outlaw those compounds. He has asked the state General Assembly to give his office the same authority Florida lawmakers granted to their state’s attorney general. Once the attorney general’s office sees new compounds that don’t fit current statutes, it wants the ability to declare the drugs illegal, “giving us the ability to pivot very quickly.”

The office would need to show that compounds are “doing harm” even if they aren’t banned under current law, DeWine said. Today, law enforcement often doesn’t know until a compound is tested in a lab whether it’s illegal or not, he said.

“We can’t wait a year to deal with this stuff,” he said.

Since the drugs are customized in labs and kitchens in the United States and abroad, tracking them is very difficult, say those concerned with public health.

“The chemical compounds are becoming such that we can’t stay on top of them,” said Helen Jones-Kelley, Montgomery County ADAMHS executive director. “As soon as we identify something, somebody else comes up with a new synthetic formula. We’re always playing catch up.”

Another issue: These remain readily available, either behind the counter at certain stores or online to anyone with a checking account or a credit card.

A year ago, the Miami Valley Regional Crime Lab purchased and tested bath salts sold online, which were billed as “legal in all 50 states,” Bucklew said. But testing at the lab showed the compounds contained level 1 narcotics, he said.

“What the Dayton community is trying to do is stay one step ahead,” Bucklew said.

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