County seeing rise in ‘designer drugs’ among teens

Shelby County Drug Enforcement Task Force Cmdr. Kevin Turner speaks during a May 16 Drug Free Coalition Meeting at Family Connection in Saginaw. (Reporter Photo/Neal Wagner)

Shelby County Drug Enforcement Task Force Cmdr. Kevin Turner speaks during a May 16 Drug Free Coalition Meeting at Family Connection in Saginaw. (Reporter Photo/Neal Wagner)

By NEAL WAGNER / City Editor

The Shelby County Juvenile Drug Court is seeing a significant increase in “very dangerous and unpredictable” synthetic drugs, and is warning of side effects ranging from seizures to permanent kidney damage.

Over the last few years, use of synthetic “designer drugs” has nearly replaced traditional drug usage among teens, Juvenile Drug Court Clinical Coordinator Emily Littrell said during a May 16 Shelby County Drug Free Coalition meeting.

“They are designed to be much more potent than normal drugs. The highs last much longer,” Littrell told the group of about 20 school officials, law enforcement officers and local parents gathered at Saginaw’s Family Connection. “They are very dangerous and unpredictable, and they are designed to be more addictive.”

Designer drugs are man-made compounds labeled as “spice,” “bath salts,” “incense” or other compounds, and were easily purchased at local gas stations until they were outlawed in Alabama a few years ago. Today, the substances are easily available online, Littrell said.

“It’s extremely big business,” Littrell said, noting the synthetic drug market brings in about $1 billion per year in profits in North America.

Short-term side effects of synthetic drug usage include panic attacks, hallucinations, agitation, heart palpitations, depression and seizures, Littrell said.

In Shelby County Juvenile Drug Court, Littrell said she commonly sees synthetic drug users complaining of gastrointestinal issues, kidney infections and kidney stones.

“The long-term side effects are pretty much unknown,” Littrell said. “It’s very addictive. Within six months, these kids are getting to daily usage. By the time they make it to drug court, they have a full-blown addiction.”

During the meeting, Littrell and her Juvenile Drug Court colleagues Ryan Burroughs and Lisa Smaha displayed several household items modified to hide controlled substances in hidden compartments. The items ranged from water bottles to Pringles cans, and retained their original appearances and weight after modification.

Shelby County law enforcement officials also are battling a rise in heroin usage, said Shelby County Drug Enforcement Task Force Cmdr. Kevin Turner.

As of May 10, the Task Force had confirmed 12 drug-related deaths this year – two of which were believed to be tied to heroin.