Joretta Fullington watched her 19-year-old son change from a seemingly fearless, self-confident young man into a distant and jumpy teen whose anxiety would spike with the intensity of a fever. She blames the transformation on a legal - even innocuous sounding - product sold in stores and referred to as "bath salts."
Fullington fears the effects of the synthetic products - when smoked or sniffed - could be just as bad as cocaine or the other illegal drugs they can mimic. The difference - until now - is that they have been more accessible to young people.
"You could have them run in for a gallon of milk, and they could be picking up bath salts. It's not like they've gone for a couple of hours looking for a drug dealer," said Fullington, 49, of the southwest Missouri town of Republic.
A new Missouri law - one of several that take effect Sunday - restricts the synthetic substances. Other new laws establish additional restrictions for late-term abortions, set new policies for handling young athletes suspected of sustaining concussions, establish longer maximum sentences for people convicted of human trafficking offenses and require drug testing for some welfare recipients.
This is Missouri's second effort in as many years to target synthetic drugs. Last year, a new law took aim at a synthetic product often marketed as "K2" that can mimic the effects of marijuana. But some producers altered the chemical compounds and continued to sell a similar product. This year's law seeks to regulate chemicals that are similar to synthetic cannabinoids, as well as additional substances that have been used in other products.
Franklin County sheriff's detective Sgt. Jason Grellner said synthetic cannabinoids can cause a more intense high than marijuana, and other synthetic substances are able to combine the hallucinogenic effects of ecstasy with the stimulant effect of cocaine. Grellner said the substances are being sold at some convenience stores and have been marketed to young people by using brightly colored packaging.
The new law "will cut down on the overdoses that we are seeing at emergency rooms and the deaths that are being associated with these drugs by overdose or by suicide," said Grellner, who is vice president of the Missouri Narcotics Officers Association.
The American Association of Poison Control Centers reported that through the first several months of this year, there were more than 2,700 cases of people falling ill from synthetic drugs. In all of 2010, there were less than 3,200 such cases.
At least 38 states through mid-August have targeted synthetic cannabinoids, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In addition, at least 30 states have sought to restrict other synthetic substances, including Missouri border states of Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Tennessee.
However, one manufacturer and wholesaler contends that Missouri's efforts are misguided and will do little to stop people from misusing things to get high. The new restrictions also could fuel a black market that leaves only irresponsible producers that make more dangerous substances, said Rodger Seratt. He said he sells bath salts and incense to vendors in southeastern Missouri and southern Illinois.
Seratt, 61, said the bath salts are intended to kill bacteria and assist with a thorough cleaning while making baths more relaxing. He said none of his products are intended for human consumption.
Although Seratt said he is getting out of the business with Missouri's new restrictions taking effect Sunday, he contends the new law is subjective and discriminatory and has sought to challenge it in federal court.
Seratt said the restrictions unfairly target producers like him and contends that if state officials want to regulate products because some consumers have misused them, then there also should be restrictions for things such as spray paint, glue, gasoline and cooking oil spray - all of which have used been used to get high.
"There is a serious problem to ban the misuse of something," he said. "What about knife manufacturers? Do they have to quit making knives because people frequently misuse them to injure people?"
Several Missouri residents earlier this year sent messages to Gov. Jay Nixon urging him to approve restrictions for the synthetic substances and describing the difficulties their loved ones have faced. Among those was Fullington, who said Missouri needs to restrict the synthetics.
"Bath salts should never have been in our stores," she said. "It should never have been on the shelves."