Despite efforts by Iowa lawmakers to outlaw new designer drugs right down to their chemical makeup, law enforcement officials continue to see incidents of the use of K2 and "bath salts" popping up all over the state.
The drugs - "bath salts" being what chemists call synthetic cathinone and K2 being a synthetic cannabinoid - produce effects similar to marijuana and cocaine, said Detective Joel Phillips, field office unit supervisor for the Mid-Iowa Drug Task Force.
"A lot of this stuff is being made in clandestine labs," he said.
Large amounts of K2 and “bath salts” seized by the mid-Iowa Drug Task Force. The drugs are often marketed with intense-sounding names as herbal incense.
Often, the drugs are marketed as herbal incense, or in the case of "bath salts," as actual bath salts or even chemical fertilizer. They are, in fact, a schedule one controlled substance. The drugs are usually sold in head shops or convenience stores.
The sale of these drugs is complicated by manufacturers printing that the substance is legal, Phillips said. But with the 2011 additions to the Iowa Code - which specifies the six chemical makeups that are illegal - many sellers of these drugs are unaware what they are selling is illegal. And because there is no field test kit for the drugs, law enforcement have no way of knowing until they confiscate the substance and send it off for testing.
"It's a very gray area," Phillips said.
Officers are trained on how to spot K2 and "bath salt" users and mostly go on how a person is acting, he said. If a person is acting like they having been using a controlled substance, it gives police probable cause.
A good deal of the issue comes from how the products are marketed, Phillips said. If the product is portrayed as a controlled substance, then there is a problem.
"If you have a bag of oregano in your pocket, that's not a crime," Phillips said. "But if you then portray it as if it were marijuana, it carries the same penalties ... it's all in the labeling."
In October 2011, police executed search warrants at The Depot, 114 N. Center St. #1, and the BP, 1701 E. Iowa Ave. Along with various paraphernalia, officers seized more than 2,300 grams of substance they believed to be K2 from The Depot and more than 800 grams from the BP, Phillips said.
Police are still waiting on the test results to confirm the substances chemical makeup, he added.
Gulshan Abbas, owner of The Depot, maintains that, despite what police say, the substance seized was not K2.
Abbas said he has not heard from police why they seized the roughly $6,000 worth of merchandise and that he was abiding by the law.
"They [the manufacturer] told me that it was 100 percent legal to sell in Iowa," he said. "If the police don't want me to sell something, I won't ... you cannot tell the law what's wrong and what's right. They are always right."
It is unfair that police expect shop keepers to confirm the content of products marketed as legal, Abbas said. They should go after the marketers, he added.
Besides, he said, he isn't responsible for customers misusing products, whether they are labeled as incense or otherwise.
"If someone gets the bleach, they can go drink it," Abbas said. "It says right on it not to drink it."
A Toxic Substance
Vicki Lewis, director of professional services at Substance Abuse Treatment Unit of Central Iowa, said although they do see some cases of K2 and "bath salt" abuse regularly, they do happen.
Even users, she said, are catching on to the negative side effects.
Determining exactly what chemicals are in these new designer drugs is difficult as they aren't regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.
"There is no perfect law for this stuff," Abbas said.
Often, users find themselves reacting as if they have imbibed a toxic substance.
"Our call volume on both substances are going up," Tammy Noble, a registered nurse in charge of education and outreach at the Iowa Poison Control Center in Sioux City. "There is probably more than we are seeing."
In 2010, only one call was made to the Poison Control Center reporting someone who had been exposed to "bath salts" and only seven calls reporting K2 exposure, Noble said.
In 2011, those number jumped to 55 exposures of "bath salts" and between 115 and 120 exposures of K2, she said. However, Noble added, hospitals are not required to call poison control to deal with patients who come in on K2 or "bath salts."
Because the drugs are synthesized, many users have no idea what kind of high they are going to get, she said.
For instance, with K2, the high can be anywhere between three and 300 times as potent as marijuana, Noble said, yet users are likely to imbibe the drug as though it were actually marijuana - which can be dangerous.
Noble said that patients suffering the side effects of K2 or "bath salts" often experience intense agitation, severe heart rate and paranoia, and sometimes the effects can induce seizures or even hallucinations.
The pitfalls of the use of K2 came into the spotlight in 2010 when 18-year old David Rozga committed suicide while on the drug.
Still, demand is growing.
As it stands, many unknowns still surround the use of these drugs, Detective Phillips said, and code could certainly use some clarification.
"Chemists are changing the chemical makeup - trying to go around the code," he said. "Our main goal is just so that nobody get hurt with those substances."