State officials are about to outlaw 75 mind-altering substances, some of which have already found their way into Vermont. It's the latest move in their never-ending game of cat and mouse with the manufacturers of synthetic drugs.
Four years ago, Gov. Peter Shumlin convened a press conference in Montpelier to announce the state's latest volley in the battle against substance abuse. Flanked by his commissioners of public health and public safety, Shumlin outlined a plan to make illegal a class of drugs known as "bath salts."
As it turns out, laws targeted at these substances have a pretty short shelf life.
"The people who design and create what people think of designer drugs are very creative chemists," says State Toxicologist Sarah Vose.
Vose helped select many of the 75 psychoactive compounds that will soon be added to the state's list of regulated drugs. It isn't the first time the state has had to update the list, and Vose says keeping pace with the industry that produces these substances is an ongoing struggle.
"And they can change molecules very easily to avoid being regulated," Vose says. "So the updates to this list are an attempt to keep ahead of that trend in designer-drug creation."
Synthetic drugs, often procured in large quantities from drug-making facilities in China, have fueled serious public health crises in cities across the country. The potency and effect from batch to batch can vary greatly, and users can suffer a range of ill effects, such as paranoia, elevated blood pressure, hallucinations and in some cases death.
John Merrigan, commander of the Vermont State Police Drug Task Force, says designer drugs aren't his primary concern.
"Heroin still is the biggest by far — the opiate issue here is the biggest," Merrigan says. "But (the synthetic drug issue) is still significant."
Three years ago, Vermont consumers could purchase bath salts and other designer drugs legally in retail gas stations and head shops, where they were sold in small pouches with brand names like Blue Silk, Cloud Nine and Ivory Wave.
The trade in these substances has since moved almost entirely to the black market, where Merrigan says the products can go for as much as $100 a gram.
"What we've had a lot of is what's going by the street name of just 'bath salts,' but it could be any number of chemical compounds that people order straight from China," Merrigan says.
The new list of regulated compounds includes all manner of drugs, including stimulants, depressants and hallucinogens. Among the soon-to-be-illegal compounds is acetyl-fentanyl, a derivative of a powerful opiate blamed for several deaths in Vermont.
The Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules will convene a hearing on the regulated drug rule proposal next week.