By Brian Haas, The Tennessean
Last year, it was synthetic marijuana being sold as incense. Today, Tennessee's teens and young adults are getting high with products marketed as "plant food" or "bath salts" containing ingredients that produce highs similar to Ecstasy.
Emergency rooms across the state over the past six months have reported increasing cases of bad reactions and overdoses by people who have eaten, snorted and injected various products.
A temporary injunction on Monday stopped the sale of one product called Molly's Plant Food, and legislation has been proposed to ban the active chemical in that and other synthetic drugs.
But these latest designer drugs highlight a perpetual war between unscrupulous chemists looking to manufacture the next high while police and legislators across the nation try to catch up. By the time a new drug is discovered and banned, another often is ready to take its place.
Authorities say these products are sold in smoke shops and gas stations - not where you'd expect fertilizer or bath products. Most, such as Molly's Plant Food, have psychedelic packaging that contains warnings such as "not for human consumption."
"They know exactly what they're doing," said state Sen. Eric Stewart, D-Belvidere, who is sponsoring a bill to outlaw six chemicals that keep showing up in some legal products. "They're not selling bath salts or plant food; they're skirting the law to sell a drug."
Dr. John Benitez, managing director of the Tennessee Poison Center, said chemists are "modifying one little molecule and kind of sliding under the law."
The problem isn't limited to Tennessee. Synthetic marijuana began cropping up across the nation a little more than a year ago. About six months ago, the legal synthetic hallucinogens such as Molly's Plant Food and "bath salts" with names such as Ivory Wave and White Lightning began growing in popularity in Nashville, said Mike Stanfill, assistant special agent in charge for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's Nashville district.
"As we respond to one, they're just going to another type of synthetic drug,'' Stanfill said. "Until we start getting a handle on this, we're going to be playing these games."
People find out about the products' ingredients and effects through the Internet and word of mouth.
"They've gotten people's attention," Stanfill said. "Especially younger people think, 'It's legal, it's OK.' I think that has helped (the drugs) to take a foothold."
Poison Center calls rise
Neither state or federal law enforcement officials could detail the scope of the problem.
"It's not illegal, so there's no arrest data or statistics generated by law enforcement," said Kristin Helm, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. "These new drugs can creep onto the scene rather quickly and usually are first noticed by medical professionals who have to treat patients who are suffering from the drug's effect."
Benitez said calls to the Poison Center involving bad reactions to these synthetic drugs across Tennessee have increased since last summer from maybe one a week to two to five calls a day in recent months.
"I'm not aware of any deaths, but we're certainly getting reports from emergency departments," Benitez said.
The main ingredient in Molly's Plant Food is an amphetamine called mephedrone. The "bath salts" were found to contain another chemical, methylenedioxypyrovalerone, or MDPV. Both have effects similar to Ecstasy and cocaine: euphoria, alertness, talkativeness, anxiety, paranoia. Adverse effects include overstimulation of the heart, circulatory and nervous systems; delusions; and uncomfortable changes in body temperature.
If Stewart's bill passes, it will be the second bill in as many years to target synthetic designer drugs. Last year, the state outlawed a synthetic marijuana product marketed as "incense" under names such as K2 and Spice that was being smoked to get high. Like Molly's Plant Food, K2 was easily available at gas stations and smoke shops.
Distributors' ground zero
Max Thomas, chief of the Tennessee Department of Agriculture's agricultural crime unit, said Nashville was ground zero for distribution of Molly's Plant Food, mainly through a Hermitage smoke shop called Toke-N-Roll and an online retailer run by a Spring Hill man.
Though the drugs were technically legal, fertilizer must be registered with the state and clearly list its ingredients, Thomas said. Molly's Plant Food did neither.
On Monday, attorneys for Eric Alexander, owner of Toke-N-Roll, and Joshua Covell, owner of Mollysplantfood.com, said their clients would stop selling Molly's Plant Food, particularly because of the pending legislation.
Police across the state have been seizing Molly's Plant Food after the Department of Agriculture obtained the seizure order. Rutherford County detectives seized 1,200 capsules in one day last week.
"I don't know if it's a battle we can win," Stewart said. "But I know it's one worth fighting."