Unknowns surrounding the illegal synthetic drugs K2 and "bath salts" are causing problems for treating victims and enforcing drug laws.
Because K2, a synthetic marijuana, and "bath salts," synthetic chemicals, are made by mixing various chemicals, some health experts think their side effects are more severe.
For example, K2 is often made by mixing Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, a component from marijuana with other compounds, said Le Mars Police Officer Jay King.
"It is a lot more powerful than regular marijuana," he said.
Some common side effects similar in taking K2 and "bath salts" include elevated blood pressure, rapid heart rate, violent tendencies, hallucinations, anxiety and paranoia.
Mary Jo Clark, ER/trauma coordinator at Floyd Valley Hospital, in Le Mars, said health care workers are often not aware of K2 and "bath salts" use unless patients tell them.
"Because this (K2) is synthetic there is a chance that when we do a urine toxicology screen it won't show up there," she explained.
That's why it's very important for anyone who has been experimenting or using the illegal drugs to tell health care workers, Clark said.
"We need people to be honest with us," she said. "If we don't know what's wrong with you, we can't treat you."
Clark explained if someone comes to the hospital with a racing heart and anxiety, she treats the symptoms, but many ailments have similar effects.
"I could be treating you for one drug, when it's another drug, and it may be the wrong treatment," she said.
Clark added that health care workers do not call the authorities if a patient is found to have used K2 or "bath salts" or other illegal drugs.
"We're not condoning the use of illegal substances, but when you come into the hospital we're here to treat people. We're not here to punish them," she said.
However, Clark noted that if a crime was committed law enforcement can request tests be performed at the hospital by obtaining a legal order or subpoena.
Along with health care, the lack of initial testing to detect the illegal synthetic drugs also affects how law enforcement deal with violators.
"Right now we do not have a field test that will test positive for K2 or other synthetics," said Le Mars Police Chief Stuart Dekkenga. "So if we put that in a marijuana field test, it will test negative."
Police officers cannot bring criminal charges until any substance has been identified as illegal by the Iowa Department of Public Safety Division of Criminal Investigation Laboratory, he said.
All drugs confiscated by police are sent to the state crime lab, whether they are suspected to be marijuana or "bath salts" or cocaine, Dekkenga explained.
King said often K2 or "bath salts" users don't recognize the man-made quality of the drug is dangerous because those same substances were sold legally in Iowa convenience stores and novelty shops until last year.
The Iowa Legislature passed a law in July 2011 making several chemicals used to make synthetic drugs such as K2 and "bath salts" illegal.
"They don't understand how highly addictive that stuff is," King said. "'Bath salts' are so addictive users crave the drug even after a trip to the emergency room."
Amy Bloch, program director of outpatient services at Jackson Recovery Centers, explained that withdrawal from synthetic drugs can be "a little bit scarier."
Jackson Recovery, with an outpatient office in Le Mars, also has inpatient treatment facilities in western Iowa including Sioux City. The centers offer general addiction treatment programs.
"Most people who enter inpatient are under the influence or have recently used. Withdrawal severity depends on how much and how often," Bloch said.
She noted those withdrawing from synthetic drugs often have "more hallucinations" along with "elevation in heart rate, blood pressure."
Because health care workers and others know less about the chemicals being used to make synthetic drugs, their effects are "more dangerous," Bloch said.
"Early on with methamphetamine people never really knew what they were getting when buying meth," she said. "It's kind of the same thing."
Manufacturers of the synthetic drugs are continuously changing the chemical formula in an attempt to circumvent the law, law enforcement said.
"They get in and change the composition a little bit and that makes a whole new drug that doesn't quite fit what the state code says," King said. "Then you've got more problems."
Bloch cautioned parents who may suspect their child is experimenting with synthetic drugs such as K2 or "bath salts" to not chalk it up to adolescent experimentation.
"Using these substances even one or two times can have long-term effects on people," she said.
Clark also advised teens and others that "the high is not work the risk" when it comes to using synthetic drugs because users coming down from the high are not thinking rationally.
"A person who's maybe not suicidal is coming down off of this thinking the world is so bad and they commit suicide," she said. "Their world looked bad and they make a rash decision right there -- and it's forever."
Information from: Le Mars Daily Sentinel, http://www.lemarssentinel.com