WEST VALLEY CITY — Matt Fairbanks, special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration in Utah, calls it a game of "chemical cat and mouse."
As fast as law government agencies are banning synthetic substances such as spice and bath salts, criminals are changing a molecule or two to come up with a new substance just as dangerous that doesn't meet the criteria of the law that banned the last synthetic drug.
"We're seeing the emergence of a new methodology for the sale of illegal hard drugs. And that is by chemically changing it by a few molecules and then selling it as a new substance that gets you just as high," he said.
"Many of these new agents have tremendously bad side effects. It's killing people, it's destroying people's minds. These substances being sold to get you high are not something to be toyed with."
One of the latest substances that has law enforcers worried: synthetic marijuana brownies. "Candy Weed," as it's known, is synthetic THC mixed with flavored corn syrup and made into little candy squares. Fairbanks said it's a trend that law enforcement officers haven't seen in Utah yet. But once a new drug appears in places like California, he said it's only a matter of time before it finds its way to the Beehive State.
That's why it's so important to keep civic leaders, parents, and clergy educated about what's happening, he said.
Fairbanks conducted workshops this week at the 15th annual Power of Prevention Conference hosted by the Utah Council for Crime Prevention. The five-day conference wrapped up Saturday at the Utah Cultural Celebrations Center. The goal of the conference was to gather law enforcement, parents, youth, teachers and community service providers under one roof to talk about strategies to reduce criminal violence and substance abuse.
Some of the topics at this year's conference addressed cyber-bullying, social media, how juveniles obtain guns, characteristics of an armed gunman, suicide and sex trafficking.
Rick Cline, with the Utah Education Network, gave a workshop on why parents need to keep up with social media in order to understand what they're children are doing online and how to protect them. He encouraged parents to get their own Facebook accounts if their children have one so they can monitor what information or pictures they're posting.
Cline said parents should also talk to their children about understanding the consequences of what they post and how it might later in life affect their schooling or employment. Additional information about social media safety can be found at www.netsafeutah.org.
Fairbanks gave several presentations on prescription drug abuse and synthetic marijuana or spice.
A 2011 National Institute on Drug Abuse survey found that more than 11 percent of twelfth-graders reported using synthetic marijuana, according to the Utah Attorney General's Office.
The American Association of Poison Control Centers reported receiving 2,906 calls because of Spice in 2010 and 6,955 in 2011, showing an increased popularity of the drug. Spice accounted for 11,206 emergency room visits in 2010, and 75 percent of patients were ages 12 to 29, according to recent survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
The problem is not just synthetic marijuana, but synthetic methamphetamine and most recently synthetic LSD. But it isn't the average drug user on the corner who is creating these substances. It's typically people with advanced knowledge of chemistry and science who are manufacturing the drugs overseas and having it shipped to the U.S. because of the great profits that can be made. Every time one substance is banned, they rearrange the chemical makeup to create a new substance.
"Every time we say, 'OK, this chemical is now a banned substance,' they'll adjust it again," Fairbanks said.
Some of the drugs have cartoon characters on the packaging, making it appear harmless. But Fairbanks said the dangers are worse than with the original drugs.
Another concern for narcotics officers is the on-going problem of prescription drug abuse.
During the past decade, drug overdose deaths among teens aged 15 to 19 rose 91 percent, with the majority due to prescription drugs, Fairbanks said. In the United States in 2009, more people died from drug overdoses than automobile accidents, he said.
In 2003 in Utah, prescription drug overdose deaths outnumbered non-prescription drug overdose deaths, according to the Utah Pharmaceutical Drug Abuse Brief. In 2010, prescription drugs were involved in 80 percent of all overdose deaths in Utah, according to the report.
"In Utah, we've been very good about staying away from alcohol and tobacco. But unfortunately, the problem with prescription drugs has been very large," Fairbanks said.
He said the public needs to understand how addictive prescription medication, such as pain pills, can be in order to help prevent it.
"The biggest concern is when people look at prescription drugs, they look at them as safe. They look at them as provided by their health care provider and can do no harm to you. And the fact is, within one week someone can form an addiction. And within a month can require up to seven Hydrocodone pills a day."
To avoid addiction, Fairbanks encouraged people to have both a healthy mind and body. He also said others can assist a person in finding the help they need.
"I would start with church clergy, pastors, bishops, personal friends, associates who have gone down the same road who are familiar with programs that turn things around," Fairbanks said.