Synthetic drugs known by the street name “bath salts” are now illegal in Nevada.
The Nevada Board of Pharmacy approved an emergency order Thursday that prohibits the drugs from being made, sold, purchased or consumed in the state.
The decision, which made the substances “schedule 1 drugs,” was the first emergency scheduling of a drug for the board and is good for 120 days. The Legislative Commission will take up the issue next month.
The Pharmacy Board agreed to revise a list of more than 140 illegal drugs, chemicals or chemical compounds published in the state’s administrative code, many of them used in the manufacture of synthetic drugs.
As chemists learn how to use new chemicals to make new drugs to avoid prosecution, the list is expected to grow when police ask them to be added.
The revision that will make it easier to prosecute offenders, however, is that charges can be brought based on the name of the drug, not just its chemical makeup.
While “bath salts” are the street name for the drug, they have nothing to do with the pleasant-smelling salts used as a skin exfoliant or to soothe sore muscles while bathing. The synthetic drugs induce hallucinations and sometimes lead to psychotic episodes, said Metropolitan Police Department Detective Bruce Gentner, head of the Nevada Narcotics Officers Association.
The drugs can mimic the effects of crystal methamphetamine, LSD, ecstasy or cocaine.
The state’s action follows a temporary ban the federal Drug Enforcement Agency put in place in October in a similar emergency action. The ban is giving the agency time to determine whether the ban should be permanent.
Both the state board and the DEA say these synthetic drugs have no accepted use under medical supervision.
INNOCENT NAMES MISLEAD
They are sold in packets with names such as Vanilla Sky, Ocean Burst and Plant Food for about $20 to $30.
At least one Nevada man’s death has been attributed to use of the drugs, and more people have died from their use nationwide.
David Gouldthorpe, a crime lab chemist with Las Vegas police, said local hospitals reported 42 patients who smoked the drug had developed lung problems.
Users normally smoke or snort the drug, but one Louisiana woman had an arm amputated after injecting it into her arm and developing a flesh-eating infection, according to multiple reports.
Since the drugs first surfaced in 2009, their use is up across the nation. Gouldthorpe said the National Poison Control Center fielded about 300 calls from people who used the drug in 2010. That number increased to more than 3,000 the first six months of 2011, the latest figures available.
“Cases are skyrocketing,” he said.
Gentner said because the drugs were not illegal in Nevada, Las Vegas has become a national hub for their manufacture and distribution. He said police have seen a 100 percent increase in the number of manufacturers in Las Vegas.
“The Police Department is seeing an increase in bath salts that’s a significant threat to our community and kids,” Gentner said. “We see it in arrests, and we see it in our hospitals.”
He said Las Vegas police recently seized more than 100 pounds of chemicals that could have been used to make more than 1,000 pounds of the drug once combined with other ingredients.
POLICE CAN’T KEEP UP
But declaring a drug illegal and having it hold up in a court of law are two different things.
Gouldthorpe said once a chemical or compound is banned, chemists who make the synthetic drugs can change a single molecule, which changes the drug but not its effect on the user. Testing for every conceivable variation is not feasible because of costs, he said. And the Police Department’s lab doesn’t have the equipment or manpower to analyze every batch.
“The costs make it impossible to identify every form,” said Gouldthorpe, who asked the board to broaden its definition of such drugs.
“That makes sense,” board Executive Secretary Larry Pinson said. “We need to do something today.”
Dane Claussen, executive director of the Nevada branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, predicted that the ban would lead to failed prosecutions.
“This is going to make a mess of the criminal justice system,” he said.
Claussen said the nation’s war on drugs is a failure that has cost billions of dollars, has resulted in lengthy prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and has packed prisons.
“This is a public health issue, not a criminal issue,” he said. “We’ll always be playing catch-up in the era of synthetic drugs.”
SMOKE SHOPS RESPOND
The Las Vegas Review-Journal visited five smoke shops in Las Vegas and Henderson on Thursday. Employees and owners said they no longer sold most synthetic drugs, but two still sell synthetic marijuana, known on the streets as spice.
The state outlawed a handful of chemicals used in making spice, but chemists subsequently altered their chemical makeup and shipped out modified batches. Gentner said the Pharmacy Board will be asked to make a similar emergency declaration regarding this drug in a couple of weeks.
Tanya Staten, the owner of Smokes Etc., on Las Vegas Boulevard near the South Point, said she doesn’t sell either product.
“I stopped selling spice and so-called bath salts a while back,” Staten said. “I didn’t feel comfortable. I choose to operate according to the law. I’m struggling because of that, but I don’t want any stigma attached to my smoke shop.”
She also said “mobile vendors” try to sell her synthetic drugs several times each week.
“They’re all over the place,” she said. “But because they’re mobile, they’ll be hard to catch. I don’t want to be left holding the bag.”
Harry Singh sells the newly revised spice but said Rick’s Smoke Shop doesn’t sell the other types of synthetic drugs. “It’s too much to take on,” he said. “Bath salts are bad, where spice is mild.”
He said the decision to sell synthetic marijuana was based on business.
Eli Saed at Smokes 4U agreed.
“We used to sell bath salts, but then realized we should not keep it. Too risky,” Saed said. “It’s bad, nothing but chemicals. How can that be good?”
But Saed, like Singh, said spice did not pose the same risks. “What we buy doesn’t have the same stuff they outlawed, so what we’re doing is legal.”
Many companies make both types of synthetic drugs, Gentner said.
The business licensing departments of the state’s communities plan to send letters to vendors advising them to stop selling these synthetic drugs, Gentner said.
Contact reporter Doug McMurdo at
firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-224-5512.