Kelly wasn’t too concerned when she would arrive home at the end of the workday and find her 20-year-old son asleep.
Isn’t that what young people do?
But those afternoon naps soon became a worrisome routine, the 42-year-old Platte County woman said.
Then came the day she and her husband found their son on the back porch, almost passed out. His eyes were glassy, and his speech was slurred.
“We thought he was going to die,” Kelly said. “It was horrible.”
They rushed him to an emergency room. It was then she learned that her son was addicted to synthetic marijuana, or K2.
Months after Missouri lawmakers made the herb-based product illegal, it continues to be sold under the counter at some independently owned gas stations and convenience stores across the area. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that nearly one in nine high school seniors has gotten high on it.
The drug, made from a mix of dead plants, flowers and chemicals, can be smoked in a pipe, mixed with marijuana or snorted. Its effects are similar to those of marijuana, but users are more likely to show up in emergency rooms with rapid heartbeats and other symptoms.
Authorities in the Northland recently seized large amounts of suspected illegal synthetic drugs that were being sold under the names of Mr. Happy and Purple Diesel and in the form of “plant food,” potpourri and bath salts.
“We are targeting merchants who sell synthetic drugs for one simple reason: Synthetic drugs are extremely dangerous. Their effect on the human body is very unpredictable,” said Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd. “A few years ago, it was legal to sell these designer drugs. That is no longer true.”
Earlier this month, three young people were hospitalized with kidney failure and a dozen others were sickened in Casper, Wyo., all linked to a batch of one designer drug, Zahnd said.
Kelly, who asked that her last name not be used because she has provided information to authorities, said her family was lucky: She and her husband sent their son to a rehabilitation center in Utah to be treated for his addiction.
While he was there, she examined his bank records and checked his cellphone calls, and saw that the phone number of a Northland gas station appeared several times. One Sunday, someone at the gas station had called her son four times in about 20 minutes.
Kelly also told authorities how easy it was for her son to buy the drugs.
“I wasn’t able to detect it in the beginning because he wasn’t using it as much,” she said. “But the more he used, the more he had to have.”
At first, a gram of the synthetic drug lasted her son about a week. It didn’t take long for his addiction to grow to three grams, she said.
Before his trip to the emergency room, “he would say, ‘It is not that big of a deal,’ ” Kelly said. “If it was bad, they wouldn’t sell it.”
Vicky Ward, manager of prevention services for Tri-County Mental Health Services, said the synthetic cannabinoids can produce an intense high.
Most packets are sold for about $20. Stores buy the packets through a dealer for about $4. Dealers can make the drugs for less than $1, Ward said.
Teens are attracted to K2, she said, because they figure the drug can’t be harmful if it’s sold at convenience stores.
“It is not your typical drug kid,” Ward said. “Their rationale is, ‘I am a good kid; I would not do anything illegal.’ But they are selling it in the stores, so you have a mindset that it must be safe.”
Stacey Daniels-Young, director of Jackson County’s COMBAT anti-drug program, said it is difficult to say how prevalent the use of synthetic drugs is among area teens.
“The picture regarding synthetic drugs changes so rapidly from year to year, it is difficult to note specific trends,” she said.
“What is clear is that national research indicates that recently, synthetics have been used more by young people than any illegal substance other than marijuana, probably because they have been so easy to obtain through ‘legal’ sources. Word about the availability of something new spreads faster than information about dangerous effects.”
Kelly said her son has experienced memory loss and nerve damage and must take medication to battle the side effects of months of smoking the synthetic drug, she said.
Parents should be vigilant and not assume their children would not become addicted, she said.
“Parents don’t have a clue to what this stuff is. They need to walk into their children’s room and look into their cars, because they are going to be shocked.”
Kelly said her son is out of rehab and has a job. But he also is an addict, she said.
“For us, it’s an everyday struggle,” Kelly said. “I wonder if my life is ever going to be normal. I can’t sleep at night. I wonder if my son is going to be OK … .”