Law banning K2 and bath salts drugs in effect in Ohio

Ohio retailers can no longer sell synthetic recreational drugs marketed as bath salts and K2 or spice, and use and possession of the substances is also banned beginning Monday.

"They'll get this enforced and it will go away for a while," Dr. Edward Otten said. "Then something else will reappear that's very similar to this then they'll have to battle that."

Dr. Edward Otten, Director of Toxicology at University Hospital says since the drugs are synthetic, it is only a matter of time before a new version hits the market.

"With a little bit of knowledge of chemistry they can change the molecules around a little bit: add something here, take off something here, call it something different," Otten explained. "Then it's not covered by the state laws, the federal laws."

"Adding a few molecules to get it around the law, I think that's what we'll see in the market place," agreed Dr. Earl Siegel, of Cincinnati Children's.

Cincinnati Police say they sent three officers to Columbus for a special training Monday to learn how best to enforce the new ban and crack down on offenders.

Otten, however, says as long as there is demand new products will inevitably pop up.

"As long as there's a market for it, that kids think that it's safe, it's legal, that it won't harm them but they can get high, they're going to keep trying it," Otten said. "That's why education is so important."

He believes the real impact will be made not one law at a time, but one person at a time.

"Education is the key," Otten emphasized. "Not enforcement, not making laws, not outlawing things. That didn't work with alcohol in prohibition and it's not going to work with drugs in the 21st century."

The legislation signed by Gov. John Kasich in July adds synthetic marijuana known as K2 or spice and six synthetic derivatives of cathinone that have been found in bath salts to the list of Schedule 1 controlled substances.

The products have been sold legally at convenience stores, tobacco shops and other businesses. The K2 or spice contains organic leaves coated with chemicals that provide a marijuana-like high when smoked, and bath salts drugs are crystallized chemicals typically snorted or injected that provide a cocaine-like high, state Sen. Dave Burke, a joint sponsor of the legislation, said.

The Marysville Republican, who is also a pharmacist, said the substances have been known to cause reactions including hallucinations, paranoia, severe agitation and seizures, and that bath salts reportedly have been linked to deaths in Ohio and elsewhere.

Making the products illegal is the only way to stop "the shadowy underworld of these designer drugs," Burke said.

As more people around the country have experimented with the synthetic drugs, more medical problems have been reported and more efforts have begun to ban the substances. The American Association of Poison Control Centers reported last month that the number of calls to the country's poison centers rose dramatically from 303 in 2010 to more than 4,700 in the first seven months of this year.

At the Cincinnati Drug and Poison Information Center they say calls about bath salts picked up drastically at the first of the year and hundreds have poured in since. They say calls on K2 are much less frequent.

The American Medical Association has come out in support of national legislation to ban bath salts, and several states have implemented their own bans on bath salts and K2 or both. Under Ohio's new law, penalties for possession or trafficking of K2 or spice will be the same as those for marijuana - a minor misdemeanor for possession and a felony for trafficking in the vicinity of a school or juvenile. Possession and trafficking of bath salts would fall under the normal felony penalties for Schedule 1 controlled substances such as cocaine and amphetamines, Burke said.

Republican state Rep. Margaret Ann Ruhl, of Mount Vernon, said most regions of the state have reported trouble with either K2 or bath salts or both. The problem was brought to her attention by school officials in her central Ohio community.

They said they were seeing a problem, but that "kids were saying the products were legal and didn't see any harm in them," said Ruhl, the bill's joint sponsor.

"There's a perception that these products are somehow safer than street drugs because they come in eye-catching packaging and are sold in gas stations, convenience stores and novelty shops," said Eric Wandersleben, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services. "The reality is, these substances are dangerous and can have life-threatening consequences."

The department has been tracking K2 and bath salts through the Ohio Substance Abuse Monitoring Network that helps identify new drug trends, but it remains difficult to determine just how big the problem is in Ohio, Wandersleben said.

According to Otten, emergency room cases involving bath salts spiked in June 2011 and in September hit 42 cases. He says those numbers include hospital cases in the northern and southern regions of the state excluding the Columbus area.

Local authorities, including those in Hamilton County in southwest Ohio, have said the drugs also have been linked to crimes. Prosecuting attorney Sherry Bevan Walsh of northeast Ohio's Summit County warned in a statement Friday that while some stores may still have the synthetic drugs on their shelves, the products would be illegal beginning Monday.

Possessing, selling, purchasing and even "gifting" these products may result in criminal charges, she said. Some businesses didn't wait for the new law.

Wendy Meggitt, owner of Smokey's Butts and Brew in Bucyrus said she still receives calls asking for the products but has refused to carry K2 or bath salts for over a year, the Bucyrus Telegraph-Forum reported.

"They seemed dangerous to me and I knew eventually they would be banned," Meggitt said.

(Copyright 2011 FOX19. The Associated Press contributed to this story. All Rights Reserved.)