- Associated Press - Sunday, March 9, 2014

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - The state of North Dakota began fighting the use and distribution of synthetic drugs four years ago. Initial actions to ban such designer drugs did little to slow their growth, as chemists tweaked formulas to keep the substances legal. But statistics from the North Dakota State Crime Laboratory show that new approaches in the past year may be working.

In late 2012, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem issued cease-and-desist orders on Big Willies ATP in Mandan and Hemp Horizonz in Minot for violating the state’s Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act by selling items known to be used as alternatives to illegal drugs. He calls the orders “one of my favorite things I’ve done” in his time as the state’s top law enforcement official. Then, the 2013 Legislature passed two emergency measures also directed at synthetic drugs.

The synthetic drug problem peaked in North Dakota in 2012, when the state crime laboratory tested more than 1,500 synthetic drug samples. In 2013, that number shrunk to just more than 300, and through the first two months in 2014, the lab has tested only one suspected synthetic drug.

“It was a remarkable and immediate reduction in the number of samples sent to the crime lab,” Stenehjem told The Bismarck Tribune (https://bit.ly/1i4hqY4). “It’s just one of those areas where we’ve seen some success.”

He believes the state’s response to synthetic drugs likely saved lives by keeping “exceedingly dangerous drugs of unknown manufacturers” out of the hands of North Dakotans.

Synthetic drugs are a relatively new problem for law enforcement. In 2009, the state crime lab received only 10 submissions for testing. It was about four years ago - in 2010 - when police reports in North Dakota began to reference to synthetic drugs. People ended up in hospitals - or jails - after bad experiences with the so-called “bath salts” and synthetic cannabinoids.

Chemists in crime laboratories across the country tried in the past few years to keep up with the illicit chemists who were constantly changing their formulas to stay within the law. The chemicals broke down into two main groups, synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic cathinones, though there were many varieties of each. Synthetic cannabinoids are intended to mimic the properties of marijuana, while synthetic cathinones are intended to mimic a variety of stimulants, including methamphetamine, and can have hallucinogenic properties.

Synthetic drugs were sold as legal ways of getting high, though their packaging often referred to them as things like bath salts, incense or aromatherapy products. Unlike street drugs, synthetic drugs’ legal status meant that they weren’t sold by dealers. They were sold in stores. In North Dakota, there were several smoke shops that sold the products. Stenehjem said the problem has been more acute in other states, where the drugs were even sold in gas stations.

Less than a week after news reports of the increase in use of such designer drugs circulated in North Dakota in February 2010, the state Board of Pharmacy used an emergency rule to ban seven substances. It would be the first of several attempts to curb the use and distribution of synthetic drugs in the state. The pharmacy board enacted the rules banning the substances in late February, though judges later ruled that the rules were not valid until Oct. 1.

That year, the lab tested 311 synthetic drug submissions: 269 synthetic cannabinoids and 42 synthetic cathinones.

The North Dakota Legislature made more substances illegal during the 2011 session in an attempt to keep up with chemists. Forensic scientists would later say they saw new substances within weeks of the 2011 law going into effect. That year, the crime lab tested 906 submissions: 880 synthetic cannabinoids and 26 synthetic cathinones.

In 2012, the number of synthetic drug submissions tested at the crime lab peaked at 1,559: 1,497 synthetic cannabinoids and 62 synthetic cathinones. The Bismarck Police Department also saw a peak in incidents dealing with synthetic drugs that year, Sgt. Mark Buschena said. Bismarck officers responded to incidents related to the substances 66 times in 2012, compared to one in 2009, five in 2010 and 15 in 2011.

By the end of that year, law enforcement officials were looking for new ideas. Two teenagers in Grand Forks died as a result of using synthetic drugs in June, the most serious of numerous reports of adverse effects from the substances. The laws and rules put into place weren’t stemming the flow of synthetic drugs in the state.

Because of the complexities of testing the substances and the sheer number of samples, turn-around times for analyzing drug samples at the state crime lab went from 11 days in the early months of 2011 to a peak of 67 days in June 2012.

Stenehjem said his office heard from hospitals and drug investigators and followed regular media reports of problems related to synthetic drugs.

“And that’s when I realized something had to be done,” he said.

Stenehjem’s office announced a fight on two fronts: using a consumer protection law to stop businesses from selling the drugs and proposing more comprehensive legislation.

In November 2012, Stenehjem’s office issued the cease-and-desist orders on Big Willies ATP in Mandan and Hemp Horizonz in Minot for violating the state’s Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act. Other stores that had sold the substances in the past had quit on their own, Stenehjem said.

Shutting down the synthetic drug trade at Big Willies, combined with the new laws, made a “huge” difference in the amount of synthetic drugs encountered by police on the streets, Mandan Police Deputy Chief Paul Leingang said.

“It was like turning off the faucet,” he said. “It really was that much of a difference.”

The new legislation passed during the 2013 legislative session took two routes: adding more substances to the banned list and making it illegal to sell anything if the seller knows the buyer will use the substance to get high. Both went into effect immediately after being signed into law last spring.

Preliminary indications are that the new strategies are working in decreasing the amounts of synthetic drugs moving through the state. Leingang said there are still cases, but the numbers pale in comparison to 2012. In 2013, the state crime laboratory tested 305 synthetic drug samples - 293 synthetic cannabinoids and 12 synthetic cathinones. In Bismarck, the number of incidents dropped to 13. Drug test turn-around times dropped back to 32 days by October 2013.

Stenehjem cautions that a complete victory over new substances is not possible. Internet sales of synthetic substances still go on, though some businesses won’t ship the drugs to North Dakota because of the laws.

“Getting a handle on the Internet would be good,” Stenehjem said.

He said it also is important for law enforcement to stay on top of whether synthetic drugs are on retail counters and for parents to know what their children are doing. Many parents whose children had used the synthetic drugs said they saw the packages in their homes but didn’t realize the dangers.

“Really, this comes down to parents knowing what is happening with their kids in their own homes,” Stenehjem said.


Information from: Bismarck Tribune, https://www.bismarcktribune.com

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