Chicago would go after head shops, bars, gas stations and other businesses that sell synthetic stimulants disguised as bath salts that mimic the effects of cocaine, Ecstasy and methamphetamines under a crackdown advanced Tuesday to stay one step ahead of the profiteers.
Less than two months after banning synthetic marijuana, the City Council’s Finance Committee moved to block a product already illegal under state law but still sold with impunity. Bath salts have become increasingly popular with student athletes because they don’t show up on drug tests.
The ordinance was approved unanimously after Cara Smith, deputy chief of staff to Attorney General Lisa Madigan, had a show-and-tell for aldermen.
She brought along small vials of synthetic stimulants purchased on the Northwest Side that look like cocaine, but were marketed as “ultra premium bath salts.”
“Kids, young adults, buy these over the counter . . .” Smith said. “In emergency rooms where these kids come in, the most universal term that I hear is, ‘They’re out of their minds.’ We’ve had all sorts of horrible accounts of kids who ingest these and feel that the devil is chasing them, are compelled to kill themselves, have horrible car accidents.”
Bath salts are powders containing hallucinogenic stimulants that some law enforcement agents say are as powerful as methamphetamine. Gov. Pat Quinn signed a law last year making possession of certain ingredients in bath salts a felony, and the law was expanded when drugmakers came up with new formulas.
“The bad guys can change the chemical structure to get around the law,” Smith said after the hearing.
The proposed ordinance passed Tuesday by the Finance Committee essentially mirrors state law, but it goes further by giving the city the power to go after retailers with fines or revoke their business licenses.
“It empowers another set of enforcement agencies, giving them another tool with which we can attack this problem,” Smith said after the hearing.
Smith told alderman that none of the products confiscated by her office – including 28 cases seized in Southern Illinois last week – contain any information identifying the manufacturer or distributor.
The potential profit for individual retailers is “extraordinary” – anywhere from $8,000 to $25,000 a week, she said.
“The makers of these drugs have been, frankly brilliant in their ability to sell illegal drugs at the corner store,” she said.
The proposed ordinance, championed by Finance Committee Chairman Edward M. Burke (14th), is broadly worded to remain one step ahead of the curve.
It would define “synthetic stimulants” as “any product – whether labeled as bath salts, novelty collector’s items, plant food or otherwise labeled – used for the purpose of being smoked, sniffed snorted, injected, ingested” that contains one of seven substances that mirror the effects of cocaine.
“No licensee . . . shall sell, offer for sale, give away, barter, exchange or otherwise furnish any synthetic stimulant in Chicago,” it states.
Violators could have their business licenses suspended or revoked. Fines would range from $500 to $1,000 a day.
Smith said the Attorney General’s office is doing its best to educate schools and students, but it’s an uphill battle.
“It’s very popular among student athletes, who are drug-tested. There are not tests that identify these products,” she said.
That prompted Burke to say, “There ought to be an awareness program in the schools so the teachers would be aware of this product and have their eyes open about seeing it around the premise.”
Last fall, an emotional plea from the mother of a 19-year-old who died in a high-speed crash after using synthetic marijuana convinced the City Council to ban the legal product in Chicago.
On June 14, 2010, Max Jacob Dobner went to the Fox Valley Mall and purchased a synthetic marijuana product known as Potpourri specifically marketed to get around a state law that was supposed to ban synthetic marijuana.
Dobner then suffered a heart-pounding panic attack, paranoia, delusions and hallucinations before getting behind the wheel and driving 100 mph into a house.