DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A new public education campaign in Iowa is warning teenagers and their parents of the dangers of synthetic drugs, which mimic marijuana, cocaine and other illegal substances.
Officials from law enforcement, public health and drug control policy announced the Speak Out Against Synthetic Drugs campaign on Monday, and hope its message can help adults talk to children about the products' dangers.
Iowa law bans several forms of synthetic drugs, but new varieties that skirt the state's definition and retain all the potent effects continue to pop up. Synthetic drugs are often marketed as bath salts or incense and sold at convenience stores, though an increasing number of retailers are refusing to carry them.
Side effects include rapid heart rate, seizures, anxiety, intense hallucinations, paranoia and suicidal tendencies.
"For sale does not mean safe to use," said first lady Chris Branstad.
It's been nearly two years since Mike and Jan Rozga's son, David, killed himself after smoking K2 — a variety of synthetic marijuana that is banned in the state— and becoming overwhelmed with anxiety and hallucinations.
The Indianola couple said at Monday's news conference that they wished they would have had the information they are now working to disseminate.
"We would have had those conversations with him," Jan Rozga said. "We had conversations about everything else. The difference is, now parents can be armed with that information."
The Legislature sent a bill to Gov. Terry Branstad on Tuesday that's aimed at making it tough —but not impossible — for manufacturers of the illegal, synthetic drugs to alter ingredients.
Officials already have identified 29 different varieties of synthetic drugs since November 2011, more than three times the number of compounds currently banned.
Education about the products is important, officials said, because legislation is unlikely to keep pace with the production of new compounds.
"It's a daunting challenge for law enforcement," said Kevin Frampton, the director of the Iowa Division of Narcotics Enforcement. "We will continue to enforce the law, but it isn't enough."
Officials are concerned because the problem seems to be growing. According to the Iowa Statewide Poison Control Center, hospitals reported 30 incidents in December 2011 where a patient came in suffering from symptoms related to synthetic drugs. That's up from zero in August 2010.
In Des Moines, there have been two instances this school year of high school students being hospitalized after smoking a synthetic drug.
"We're staring into the faces of monsters," Jan Rozga said of synthetic drugmakers. "So we have to be just as determined as the people manufacturing these drugs. More determined."
The Speak Out Against Synthetic Drugs initiative includes public service messages and other informational materials that provide tips on identifying and talking about synthetic drugs, as well as training materials for professionals.