By John Monk – [email protected]
By John Monk The Herald
Bath salts and synthetic marijuana, which only last week could be bought in places like flea markets and convenience stores across South Carolina, were Monday placed in the same category as cocaine and heroin.
Now, anyone buying, selling or possessing such drugs — known as Schedule I drugs — could be charged with a felony on first offense and face a possible $5,000 fine and up to five years in prison.
The new state ban, effective immediately, came after a Monday afternoon vote by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control board. It follows federal bans on bath salts, announced Friday, and synthetic marijuana, announced earlier this year.
“This will allow state and local law enforcement officers to deal with the issue,” said DHEC general counsel Carl Roberts.
Still to be determined is how much time stores and other outlets will have to turn in these banned substances. But DHEC spokesman Adam Myrick said anyone with the drugs should go ahead and “contact their local law enforcement agency and make arrangements to turn them in.”
The State Law Enforcement Division will draw up guidance for local law enforcement as to when to start making arrests so police agencies statewide will follow a uniform policy, officials said.
Law enforcement and medical officials across the Midlands reacted with enthusiasm, noting a growing problem with the drugs across the state.
A 19-year-old Anderson University student athlete who died recently had a chemical found in synthetic marijuana in his blood, according to the Anderson County coroner. And in the Midlands, a man who killed a taxi driver, then killed himself, was found to have synthetic marijuana in his blood, officials said.
“There’s no question that bath salts have caused documented deaths,” Richland County Coroner Gary Watts said Monday.
Watts said his office is currently retesting some autopsy results from young people who died mysteriously to see whether the now-banned chemicals may have played a role in their deaths. Pathologists routinely run drug scans on deaths from unknown causes, but the chemicals used in the newly banned drugs are so new that Watts’ office didn’t have the necessary testing protocols until recently, he said.
Bryan Fox, who runs an adolescent drug treatment program at Palmetto Health hospitals, said he was pleased with DHEC’s action. Some youths ages 15-19 have been admitted to his program with problems linked to the newly banned drugs, he said.
“Young people tend to equate something that’s legal with being OK,” Fox said.
In reality, bath salts is the street name for a substance that mimics the effects of methamphetamine. Law enforcement, medical professionals and drug counselors have reported some users become paranoid or suffer a rapid heart rate.
The synthetic marijuana, until Monday still legal under state law, contains a substance similar to real marijuana, only more powerful in some cases, Fox said. Both can cause physical and mental problems, he added.
Drug counselors say the danger in synthetic drugs comes from a lack of consistency in how they are made. No one knows how much of which chemicals they are ingesting or where those chemicals were made.
Kershaw County Sheriff Jim Matthews, a former DEA agent, said he’s glad DHEC and DEA have acted. “I know DEA doesn’t do anything like this without it really being serious.”
And U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles said federal agents will be actively prosecuting bath salts and synthetic marijuana cases.