In his office on the second floor of the Iowa City Police Department, Det. Kevin Bailey pulls up a video on his laptop.
The video starts with a teenager sitting in the back of a car. The driver hands him a glass pipe loaded with K2, a so-called synthetic marijuana sold in convenience stores, gas stations and tobacco stores across the country, including businesses throughout Iowa.
Minutes after taking his first hit from the pipe, the teenager’s upbeat, animated demeanor changes. His eyes widen and his voice slows down. It isn’t long before the teenager, who was calm moments earlier, experiences a violent mood swing. He screams, claws at his face and thrashes uncontrollably.
“It’s frightening,” Bailey said.
Bailey, whose duties include investigating juvenile crime, has shown that video — part of a PowerPoint presentation on synthetic drugs — to hundreds of teachers in the Iowa City Community School District. The district asked Bailey to educate school staff on what to expect if a student is high on a synthetic drug.
Their concerns are valid. Less than two months removed from a worldwide high profile Drug Enforcement Agency raid of businesses selling synthetic drugs — including shops in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids — authorities in the Corridor say these drugs are still available.
“There’s synthetic marijuana still out there,” said Sgt. David Dostal, leader of the Cedar Rapids Police Department’s Narcotics and Vice Unit. “We’re getting some reports of some stores; they’re maybe still selling it. We’re doing what we can do.”
On June 26, federal DEA agents — aided by local police officers and sheriff’s deputies — raided 11 Eastern Iowa businesses suspected of selling synthetic drugs. The raids were part of a global effort that included arrests in 35 states and five countries.
Local authorities say the investigation is ongoing, but indictments are likely. Jim Shroba, acting agent in charge of the DEA’s St. Louis office, could not be reached for comment.
Signs of progress
Jerry Blomgren, an Iowa City police investigator and member of the Johnson County Drug Task Force, said the raid was largely successful.
“We’re seeing quite a reduction in synthetic drugs,” Blomgren said this week. “We’re not seeing or hearing about them nearly as much as we were before the raid … Since that time, I’ve only personally come across packaging once or twice on search warrants. Before, it seemed like we were seeing it a lot more than that.”
Yet, reports of synthetic drug use persist. Earlier this month, police said an Iowa City man severely injured himself after punching out doors and windows at an apartment complex. Police said the man was high on K2.
Bailey said the goal of drug investigations is to limit drug use through limiting access.
“We significantly reduced the access, but there are still reports of use,” he said. “It’s very frustrating for law enforcement.”
Dostal said the Cedar Rapids portion of the raid netted between 15,000 and 16,000 packets of synthetic drugs. Still, Dostal said he’s heard that new shipments of the drugs were coming into the city within a couple of days of the raid.
“We also had information people were selling it out of cars,” Dostal said. “We’ve also got information they’re selling only to people they know.”
To demonstrate how easy it is to still purchase K2, Bailey pulled up a website on his computer that sells synthetic marijuana.
“You can get this stuff online,” he said.
Law enforcement’s biggest concern is that people simply don’t know what they are getting themselves into when they use synthetics. Bailey said synthetic drug use crosses all demographics. He’s seen people of all ages, races, genders and social classes high on the drugs.
Police also describe the out-of-control behavior as different from someone who is out of control on alcohol or another drug. Bailey said that behavior is sustained for longer periods of time.
He recalls one incident with a 13-year-old boy with no history of violence who smoked K2 and fought with his mom, friends and police during what Bailey describes as “90 to 100 minutes of rage.”
“A kid that’s never been violent,” he said.
Another video in Bailey’s presentation shows a grown man — high on synthetics — rocking and crying for his mother. His mood shifts and he begins bucking like a startled horse. His rage persists after being stunned with a Taser and Bailey said the man had to be put in a medically induced coma.
None of the videos in Bailey’s presentation are of local subjects.
Steven Lukan, director of the Governor’s Office on Drug Control, said one benefit of the June raid is it helped parents — who are largely oblivious to the synthetic drug problem, according to informal surveys conducted by Lukan’s office — become aware of the issue.
“It helped raise public awareness to stores that were selling them and what they are,” Lukan said. “A tremendous amount of parents don’t know they exist. That’s been one of the big challenges.”
Lukan said the state is exploring other avenues to combat the synthetic drug problem. A couple months ago, inspectors with the state’s lottery commission — who visit retail establishments on a weekly basis — were trained on what synthetic drug packages look like and given numbers to call if they suspect a business is dealing the drugs.
“We have more eyes and ears out there,” he said.
Lukan also is hopeful the state legislature will raise the penalties for dealing and handling synthetic drugs from a misdemeanor to a felony.
Another angle Lukan want to explore is the “moral character” clause in licensing for businesses that sell liquor and tobacco. Lukan would like to use that clause to put pressure on businesses selling synthetics by revoking their alcohol or tobacco permits.
“Merchants are selling these drugs, knowing full well what the effects can be,” he said. “They ought to be held accountable.”
Lukan also intends to attend a synthetic drug summit in October hosted by the National Association of Model State Drug Laws. The United Kingdom, Tennessee and Arkansas have had success in battling synthetic drug abuse and Lukan would like to see if lessons learned there can be applied in Iowa.
Much of the focus will be on altering the language in the Iowa Code to prevent synthetic drug manufactures from skirting the list of banned substances by using different chemical compounds.
“I’m optimistic we can do some brainstorming and find some stronger language and introduce it in Iowa,” Lukan said.