SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) — Warnings from law enforcement, large scale raids and seizures, even arrests did not deter some Springfield shop owners from peddling dangerous synthetic drugs.
But now that more than two dozen business owners are facing federal prosecution for selling synthetics, many have lost their nerve.
Springfield police drug officers and local agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration say that since some shop owners were indicted in December — the first time anyone was charged locally with distributing K2 or bath salts — availability of the outlawed substances has noticeably tightened.
For years before the indictments, local law enforcement struggled to disrupt the synthetic drug trade. Officials acknowledged that developers of the drug were able to stay a step ahead of the law by chemically altering the substances just enough to avoid prosecution, The Springfield News-Leader reported (http://is.gd/GTi3hU ).
"The indictments have served to educate," said Lt. Vance Holland of the special investigations unit. "Some shop owners won't mess with it due to the risk involved to their overall business."
With a credible threat to store owners, synthetics have gradually come off retail shelves and, like meth, cocaine and other illegal drugs, have been pushed underground, police say.
The benefit in that?
Narcotics supervisor Sgt. Bryan DiSylvester put it this way: "It's helpful in that a 16-year-old kid cannot go into a convenience store and buy it from a clerk."
Though the supply appears to have waned, officers acknowledge demand continues.
"People are still producing and selling synthetics in the area; however, they are doing it more like a common drug deal," said Jerry Craig, supervisor of the DEA Springfield office. "We were recently told about a person who sells it by the 'joint.' "
It isn't clear if the underground drug market has completely filled the gap in distribution left by a fallout in retail sales.
DiSylvester said before the indictments, police "could count on" four or five synthetic drug-related incidents each day.
"Now it's about 4 or 5 times a week," he said.
Although far fewer stores are selling synthetics, and police are seeing the drug far less frequently, it isn't clear that usage has seen a subsequent drop.
At Mercy Hospital in Springfield, for example, synthetic-drug related emergency room visits slightly increased during the first part of this year — 30 patients during the first six months of 2013 compared with 23 during the same time frame in 2012.
Cox Hospitals — north and south — report no significant change in synthetic drug-related visits.
Another sign that usage rates might be remaining steady is in the Greene County Jail.
Page 2 of 3 - Jail psychologist Melissa Ussery said inmates report using synthetic drugs at about the same rate as before the crackdown on local stores.
"I am still consistently seeing individuals either under the influence or reporting use," she said.
Ussery's profession gives her unique insight. Her expertise comes from candid interviews with inmates about drug use.
Those inmates tell Ussery they use synthetic stimulants, known among users as bath salts, as an alternative to methamphetamine.
She said on any given day, about half of the jail population reports they use bath salts — that's the same level of usage reported prior to the indictments. Ussery estimates the number of users is actually higher than that. She said some users who say they use meth actually are using bath salts.
"They consider it to be synthetic meth and don't differentiate between the two," she said.
As for synthetic marijuana, also known as K2, K3 or "fake weed," Ussery said inmates report usage at a rate of 50 percent to 75 percent. Those on probation or parole prefer synthetics, Ussery has said, because they believe the substances will not appear on court-ordered drug tests.
Ussery said inmates have reported adverse reactions when using either type of drug, including lingering symptoms and psychotic episodes — delusions, hallucinations and paranoia.
Where are they getting the stuff?
Ussery, relaying reports of inmates, said people are still able to get synthetics at a few stores that sell them, or they can get them on the Internet.
"I have also heard from a number of people that there are people locally who are now attempting to make or (are) making their own synthetic amphetamine (bath salts) and selling it," she said.
Local production of synthetic drugs is not as complicated as it sounds. Generally, it starts with people purchasing illegal chemicals from China, Thailand and other countries. Then, the chemicals are dispersed on a medium for consumption — usually chemicals are soaked into plant material to be smoked or powder material to be snorted.
Occasionally, DiSylvester said, officers are still finding stores that sell substances in packaging similar to synthetic drugs.
Police seize the substances but "a lot of times when it is confiscated from a store and sent to a lab, it comes back as caffeine."
Some stores are essentially selling a legal substance at bath salts prices, DiSylvester said.
But some stores might still take the risk of selling synthetics, DiSylvester said.
"The money in it is just so immense," he said.
Generally, DiSylvester said, even a small operation can make up to $5,000 per day. If those stores operated during bank hours, that would garner about $1.25 million each year. Federal prosecutors say a Springfield family of three racked up more than $6 million since 2009.
Page 3 of 3 - But, unlike in the past, shop owners now risk serious jail time.
Each count of conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance analogue — a common federal charge for selling synthetic drugs — carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in federal prison. Those recently indicted in Springfield are facing multiple counts.
Local officers note another consequence of federal prosecution that might be striking fear into shop owners considering selling synthetic drugs — the feds seize all assets that might have been derived from criminal activity.
Cars, real estate, guns and millions of dollars are among the assets already seized from the two dozen people recently indicted.