When Indiana lawmakers passed a 2011 bill that made possession and sales of spice, bath salts and other synthetic drugs illegal, manufacturers quickly responded by tweaking the ingredients — leaving the designer blends still readily available on store shelves in Lafayette and elsewhere.
The General Assembly fired back in 2012 by adding 60 chemicals and derivatives of illegal drugs to the banned list. State Senator Ron Alting, R-Lafayette, one of the legislation’s sponsors, dubbed it “one of the best in the nation.”
But was it enough to fully quash the problem?
Not according to State Senator Jim Merritt, R-Indianapolis, another co-sponsor of the 2012 law. Earlier this month, Merritt filed Senate Bill 536, which would broaden how Indiana defines synthetic drugs.
Simply put, instead of relying on chemical makeup, any substance that a reasonable person believes is a synthetic drug is a synthetic drug. And any substance that a reasonable person believes is being sold and purchased as a synthetic drug is a synthetic drug.
Alting signed on Tuesday as the bill’s co-sponsor.
“Sen. Merritt wants to take it one step further, and I support that,” Alting said. “I think we can only get a safer and better community and state because of it.”
Commonly marketed as incense and potpourri sold in small packets, spice mimics marijuana’s high – but with side effects said to be 10 times stronger – when smoked. It’s often called synthetic pot.
Bath salts, which were sold in small plastic tubs, is a powdery substance laced with stimulants that have been compared to synthetic cocaine.
Both spice and bath salts were sold in head shops, tobacco stores and gas stations.
Though illegal now, the synthetic drugs still are regularly abused in Tippecanoe County.
“We have seen quite a few students who are testing positive for them,” said Lisa Boone, office manager at Work-Comp Management Services Inc., the Lafayette-based clinic used by the Indiana Department of Child Services’ Tippecanoe County branch and school districts in Tippecanoe, Carroll and White counties.
In 2012, 10 percent of 489 samples submitted to Work-Comp for analysis tested positive for spice or bath salts, according to data Boone provided.
Prosecutor Pat Harrington said 50 to 60 spice possession cases and one bath salts possession case were filed last year in adult court, which was expected since the substances were only recently made illegal.
Continued use of spice, specifically, has been most prevalent in juvenile court, he said.
“There’s no scientific explanation for it, other than our observation that since it was once legal, it’s quote-unquote ‘Not that bad for you,’” Harrington said. “Obviously we know that’s not true. It’s a highly destructive drug. There are also those who are using it because they believe it’s harder to detect in drug screens. They think it’s less likely to be caught. That’s not true.”
He said the Indiana State Police laboratory in Lowell has kept up with the ever-changing chemical ingredients and now is able to return test results in one to two months.
“The gap between the two – manufacturers changing the structure of the drug and the lab having time to test for it – has closed up tremendously,” Harrington said.
Still, SB 536 would be beneficial for law enforcement.
According to Sgt. Brad Curwick of the Lafayette Police Department Street Crimes Unit, the agency is hoping to soon get kits so suspected spice can be tested in the field, similar to the process for marijuana, cocaine and heroin.
He said spice use is “absolutely still an issue.”
But for now, when officers come across a substance they believe is a synthetic drug, all they can do is confiscate it and issue a court summons to the suspect. From there, the substance is sent for analysis.
“On the street side, when we see it now, it’s initially hard to determine if it’s a synthetic drug,” said Curwick, who also helps oversee the multi-agency Tippecanoe County Drug Task Force. “We’re not hearing as much now about spice being in stores. Now, it’s more out on the street, in people’s houses, being sold that way.”