Despite their potentially dangerous effects, synthetic drugs like "bath salts" and "spice" can be found at many Maryland gas stations, a Baltimore DEA special agent told a group at this year's Harford County drug symposium Wednesday.
The DEA has worked to get the chemical compounds commonly found in the bath salts and spice declared illegal, and the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012, signed by President Barack Obama, listed a slew of illegal compounds, but manufacturers can change "one little molecule" in the compound to get around the law. Chip Cooke, a DEA special agent with the agency's Baltimore office, told a crowd of about 260 at the Harford County Symposium on Drug Prevention, Intervention and Treatment.
"Which means now you can sell it in a gas station in the state of Maryland," Cooke said.
Social workers, counselors, educators, parents, students and others attended the 10th annual symposium, which was held at Patterson Mill High School and drew professionals from throughout Harford County and the Baltimore area, to learn more about how to recognize and combat substance abuse by young people, as well as to hear about the latest research on violence, addiction and how child sexual predators use electronic means to find victims.
"In order to have community-level change ... we need to mobilize our community, and part of mobilizing is really giving them the tools and education to combat substance abuse," Pastor Carol Taylor, president of FACE-IT, Faith Activated Community Empowering Intervention Training, of Harford County, said.
The symposium was put on by FACE-IT and Harford County's Office of Drug Control Policy, part of the Department of Community Services. Other partners in the event included the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Harford County Public Schools, the Harford County Sheriff's Office, Father Martin's Ashley which provides adult inpatient substance abuse treatment and the Maryland State Police.
Cooke delivered the morning keynote address: "Synthetic Drugs: Chemicals That Kill."
He spent about 90 minutes speaking to his audience in the Patterson Mill auditorium about how synthetic drugs, commonly known as "bath salts" and "spice," are made and sold, their effects on users, which include violent outbursts, hallucinations, serious injury and even death, and legal efforts to combat the drugs.
"There is no one true expert when it comes to synthetic drugs," Cooke said. "We are all still learning."
The special agent explained that "bath salts," stimulants which a person can buy legally at many gas stations, "head shops" or online, are not the same bath salts found in a hotel room.
The bath salts drugs are made of chemical stimulants derived from cathinone, which occurs naturally in the East African khat plant, according to a fact sheet on the DEA website. In places on the Arabian peninsula, many people chew khat leaves.
Synthetic marijuana, or "spice," is marketed as harmless incense or potpourri air freshener, but the drug is a mix of psychoactive chemicals and plant material, Cooke explained.
He said the drugs are made in labs around the U.S. and the world and then shipped and sold in "flashy cellophane containers."
The packages are often labeled "not for human consumption," which gives sellers a legal loophole.
Cooke urged audience members to work in their communities to educate people about synthetic drugs, get help for those who are addicted to them and boycott businesses that sell them.
"This is a partnership and a collaboration," he said.
Taj Robinson, 14, and a rising sophomore at Bel Air High School, and his 17-year-old brother, Bryce, a 2013 graduate of Bel Air, were among the local students who helped out at the symposium Wednesday.
They said Harford County youths typically use drugs and alcohol to escape boredom or to be rebellious, and references to drugs can be found in many popular songs.
"If I were going to stop drugs, what I would do is focus less on the drugs themselves and more on presenting a healthy alternative to drugs," Bryce said.
Willie Walker and his wife, Lillie Ragins-Walker, of Bel Air, who are private counselors and adjunct social work faculty members at Morgan State University, attend the symposium each year.
"The symposium's so important to us because it really keeps us fresh and up to date," Ragins-Walker said.
Marline Francis, pastor of the Baltimore Tabernacle of Prayer Outreach, also attended the symposium and ate lunch with the Walkers. She said she often ministers to people in Baltimore, but had not heard of synthetic drugs before Cooke's keynote.
"I've been doing this for years, but there's so much happening now that wasn't happening before," she said of ministering in the city. "The drugs are different now."wasn't happening before," she said of ministering in the city. "The drugs are different now."