Marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamine are all common illegal drugs. But today, a new generation of drugs is evolving: man-made synthetic drugs called "K2" and "bath salts". Many of those drugs are now banned by individual states and the federal government, but a lot of them are still legal and widely available.
The challenge: laws are having a tough time keeping up with the constantly changing formulas of synthetic drugs. But make now mistake, synthetic drugs being sold as legal are still extremely toxic, with powerful stimulants that mimic the effects of street drugs like coke and meth.
For several months, we've been working with a source we'll only be calling "Doug" to protect his identity. Doug knows first hand the damages so-called bath salts can do, and he is desperate to get these drugs off the streets.
Doug is a self-admitted drug addict.
"It led to a point where it was seven days a week, what you want to say 24/7. It was smoking, snorting, shooting, every aspect of use you can think of. And through the course, I lost everything. I even lost family members in the deal," he said.
After being locked up in prison, he gave up on drugs. But recently, he started experimenting with something new: bath salts sold under the name "Blue".
"It was just one of those things I wanted to see what the thrill was, and the thrill turned out to be a nightmare," Doug said.
He says the tiny crystals pack quite a punch.
"The worst part of it is...when you do want to stop, sometimes the mind controlling that it does to you it almost makes you just want to just kill yourself, to be honest with you," said Doug.
And Doug wanted to show us just how easy it is to find bath salts. With empty pockets, he walked into a local convenience store, and a few minutes later, came back with some "Blue". The tiny contained he purchased cost a whopping $60.
"It's the young people out there that's taking this stuff home, destroying their selves and their families, killing their selves. Maybe their mom and dad won't step up to the plate, maybe they never had to a reason to step up to the plate, but I've got a reason to step up to the plate. I hate to see people lose what I've already lost in my life," he said.
We showed our video of the purchase to a Tri-County Drug Task Force investigator and Waterloo Safety Services director Dan Trelka.
"It's been a situation we've been aware of and have come across in several situations lately," Lt. Corbin Payne with the Tri-County Drug Task Force said.
But getting bath salts off the streets is no easy
"Iowa does have one of the toughest anti-synthetic drug laws on the books right now, but the threat is constantly evolving. The manufacturers are always tweaking these chemical compounds to try to make something legal," said Steven Lukan, director of the Iowa Governor's Office of Drug Control Policy.
In fact, we had "Blue" tested by a lab. The results showed a single chemical compound called APVP for short. The substance is not explicitly banned, but that doesn't been it is safe.
"As for the dangers for society and for the officers, there have been some stories from our own officers where different people just blow off at the handle then to no response whatsoever with what officers have done, then clam, and act up again in a violent way," said Lt. Payne.
Investigators are now looking at every possible tool to crack down on synthetic drug sales—even using consumer fraud and money laundering laws to go after retailers selling bath salts.
"We are aware of the situation, and we're going to continue to do the best we can as far as making these synthetic drugs a thing of the past," Lt. Payne said.
It's an ever-evolving drug war, but one police desperately want to win to save people like Doug from harmful addictions, even death.
"I think the powers to be need to go in their children's rooms and check their purses and check their drawers. Is that what it's going to take to hit home? To watch your 15-year-old kid go in the ground of an overdose before it's important to you? It's important to me, and somebody needs to step up to the plate," said Doug.
Last summer, federal Drug Enforcement agents conducted a sting called "Operation Log Jam". It was the first effort of its kind to take down synthetic drug traffickers. Some of the drugs pulled off the street in Operation Log Jam included bath salts with APVP, the very chemical found in the product "Blue" we had tested.
A provision in federal law actually allows criminal prosecution when substances are chemically similar to substances that are banned. So we're turning over information from our investigation to police, to determine if any charges can be filed against local businesses selling bath salts. At police request, we are not directly contacting or naming those businesses, but we will keep you updated if charges are filed.
The Iowa Legislature is considering a bill (HSB 85) to tighten synthetic drug laws even further by banning more classes of drugs and creating tougher penalties.
If you or someone you know is fighting drug addiction, there are plenty of ways to get help.
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