Illegal drugs can cause enough harm, but local medical and police officials also are seeing increased problems from substances that are being sold right out in the open.
“It’s legal — there’s nothing we can do, there’s nothing the police can do,” Dr. Jason Stopyra, an emergency-room physician at Northern Hospital of Surry County, said Friday of the medical and law enforcement communities.
Such concerns are stemming from abuse of products such as glass cleaner, bath salts and certain incense. Although bath salts were made illegal in North Carolina, officials say drug makers constantly change the ingredients or chemical compounds to circumvent the law. This can mean switching to other chemicals that are not on a banned list.
That has led to dangerous substances resurfacing in new forms that, while meeting the letter of the law, are still causing medical and other crises.
“I had three yesterday,” Stopyra said Friday of overdoses cases handled at the NHSC Emergency Department which he linked to the products in question.
He said such incidents have recently spiked, reflecting the spread of what up to now has been a nationwide problem. As for the frequency of overdoses on a monthly basis locally, “I would think over 20 would be a fair estimate,” the physician said.
“The consequences can be disastrous,” said Mount Airy Police Chief Dale Watson, who also has become concerned about the problems caused locally by misuse of products such as bath salts. The issue is people using legal cleaning and other products “for unintended purposes,” Watson added Friday.
“I’ve not seen any deaths in the (county) medical examiner’s office attributed to it,” Stopyra said of overdoses of the substances, but there’s concern about where the situation could be headed. “It’s a tremendous problem,” the emergency room doctor said.
Though its sales are legal, Stopyra says the type of product creating the fears is similar to illicit drugs such as methamphetamine and cocaine. “It has the same addictive properties,” he said. One of the items involved has a similar chemical makeup to PCP or “angel dust,” he said.
The chemical mixture involved can be snorted or injected. While it produces an amphetamine-like high, it also can lead to alarming and bizarre behavior by a user, including delusions, paranoia and suicidal desires.
“They can become very aggressive without knowledge of the consequences,” Stopyra said. “They can get very agitated and downright mean.” A person might exhibit twitching, jerking and other strange movements, he added. “They are a danger to themselves and others.”
Even if someone does not suffer an overdose, their aggressive actions can lead to law enforcement intervention that exposes the fact they have been using the substances.
Stopyra added that he often attempts to interview people about why they ingest such a product. “They keep telling me it’s legal,” he said, “but it has the same dangers” (as illegal narcotics).
“It is a mind-altering substance.”
The physician has been told that at least one of the attractions is a belief that a person’s sex drive is increased. “So you’ve got couples doing it,” he said.
Since the abuse of the products is relatively new, there’s been little research about their long-term effects. “We are really on the front end of this,” Stopyra said.
Local Business A Source
Both the emergency room doctor and the police chief said they know of only one business in Mount Airy which has sold products linked to the overdoses.
“They’re getting this drug from a tobacco store on West Lebanon Street,” Stopyra said of Smokin’ Tobacco Pipes and More.
“I’m sure it’s a great money-maker for this guy, but it’s hurting our community.”
Watson, the police chief, said people are tending to become addicted because they are able to access the products so easily.
The store has been contacted regarding the problem, but still continues to sell the items, he said. “We have spoken with him on occasion,” Watson added of its operator.
A man identifying himself only as Keith, who said he was the manager of Smokin’ Tobacco Pipes and More, took the position Friday that the store is selling legal products. And it is up to the buyer to use them for their intended purpose, he said. “People are trying to make us the bad guy.”
“We’re not causing an epidemic,” the manager added. “We understand that people are using it illegally and we’re trying to nip it in the bud as soon as we can.”
One thing the store staff does is try to screen buyers as much as it can, Keith said. “You can’t judge people when they come in the door, as much as we wish we could.”
But if personnel have reason to believe someone is abusing a product, such as finding an empty container in the restroom immediately after they buy it, “then they’re not allowed back in the store,” Keith said.
He pointed out that some might return and express dissatisfaction with not being able to get high off something they bought, which the store considers a good thing.
“If we get complaints, that’s what we want.”
Both Watson and Stopyra say that the only recourse they have is to work to get the law changed to ban products causing the problems.
“We are going to get with our state representatives and see if we can work together to combat this issue,” the police chief said.
But Watson thinks involvement by the entire community is needed to stop the misuse completely.
Dr. Stopyra believes educating the public about the magnitude of the problem is also a key. The fact that a grass-roots program called Project Lazarus already is in place to deal with prescription medication problems in Surry County should help with the latest drug threat, he said.
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or firstname.lastname@example.org.