County councils across the state are taking action against a new wave of drugs that are being blamed for the death of an Anderson Univeristy basketball player, as well as an incident in Spartanburg County that saw a woman try to steal a police car.
Anderson, Greenville and Spartanburg counties have all unanimously approved at least one reading of ordinances banning the advertisement, sale and possession of synthetic marijuana and bath salts that are being used for a cheap high with increasing frequency.
“Six months ago, 'bath salts' were not much of a phenomenon. Now, however, most, if not all of the emergency room physicians have encountered a patient who has taken them," said Dr. Chris Lombardozzi, ER physician at Spartanburg Regional Medical Center.
"Because it’s early in the development of the drug, it’s very difficult for physicians to know for sure if someone is actually under the influence of bath salts, unless they specifically admit to taking them. They are certainly harmful, and can be fatal. Cases, on a national basis, have gone from very small numbers to thousands a year."
The growing prevalence of the new substances alarmed Spartanburg County Council.
"It's endangering our police officers, it's endangering our citizens," said Spartanburg County Councilman O'Neal Mintz. "It's not good for our children to be able to walk into these convenience stores and see this drug paraphernalia being sold, along with bath salts.
"This is some bad stuff making people hallucinate and do a lot of crazy things."
Spartanburg's ordinance, which passed on first reading Monday, would institute a civil fine of $500 for offenders.
Anderson and Greenville counties' unanimously approved their ordinances banning the substances as emergency measures to take effect immediately.
Following its initial approval on Oct. 11, the Lexington County Council is poised to officially outlaw the use, purchase, sale, or possession of bath salts and synthetic marijuana when it meets again on Oct. 25, said council vice chairman Bill Banning Sr.
By prohibiting the substances, the council is largely following the lead of neighboring Columbia and Richland County -- and heeding recommendations from the Lexington-Richland Alcohol and Drug Abuse Council (LRADAC), said Banning. But the council's intent on outlawing the substances isn't merely a knee-jerk reaction, he said.
"It's a problem everywhere from what I'm reading and hearing," said Banning. "I think anytime you have a substance that is that dangerous, based on the stuff I've read from LRADAC, you just don't need to have that substance out on the street where just anybody can walk in anywhere and buy it.
"The County Council is responding now in order to save lives," Banning added. "That's the bottom line."
Meanwhile, the South Carolina General Assembly will likely take action against bath salts and synthetic marijuana in January, said Sen. Larry Martin, a Repubilcan who co-sponsored Senate Bill 78, which sought to ban the new synthetic "incense," that is said to mimic the affects of weed earlier this year.
The bill passed through the Senate in April and entered the House judiciary committee. Then, as bath salts began to be widely abused, an amendment was recommended to Senate Bill 78 that would have also banned that substance.
"The problem we had was that we had redistricting, tort reform, a variety of things vying for our attention," Martin said. "And over in the House Judiciary Committee, they never had the time to devote to it to get it going."
Martin said given the publicity the substances have seen since the bill languished in committee last session, it will likely receive immediate attention in January.
"It wasn't that we were indifferent or didn't realize it was a problem. We knew a problem existed, and we tried to create a remedy for it, but we flat ran out of time," Martin said. "It (the bill's passage) will the happen early in january. The House Judiciary Committee will take up her proposal to amend Senate Bill 78, and I suspect in light of the broad support that exists out there to address this issue around the state, you'll see action coming pretty quickly in the new session."
South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control can't act unilaterally without a ban from the federal Drug Enforcement Agency because South Carolina law does not permit it, according to Adam Myrick, DHEC's public information director.
Should the DEA make a move, DHEC will soon follow suit against bath salts. If DHEC were to pass an emergency ban, South Carolina law enforcement will have the authority to enforce it.
Currently, Myrick explained, only bath salts are being considered for a DHEC ban because only the chemicals used to make bath salts are being rescheduled by the DEA. Synthetic marijuana is not being considered for the national emergency ban, and therefore DHEC has no authority to enforce an emergency ban on synthetic marijuana.
Meanwhile, local law enforcement agencies are dealing with the fallout from the drugs, which produce unpredictable behavior and hallucinogenic effects.
Lt. Mike Hildebrand of the Greenville County Sheriff's Office confirmed there were plenty of difficulties arising from the drugs' use.
"We have received some calls in reference to them. Primarily the calls we receive are simply intoxicated persons or disturbance type calls," Hildebrand said. "Once the deputy arrives on scene, they determine that the person is under the influence of something other than alcohol or another drug."
Hildebrand said before Greenville County's actions that the substances' nebulous legal status contributed to serious problems with dealing with users.
"Since bath salts and synthetic marijuana are not illegal as of yet, there is no way to track the number of incidents. If an arrest is made, it is for disorderly conduct or the like so at this point there is no method of tracking specific incidents. Of the reports I do know about, there have not been any major incidents from their use," he added.
Zach Hinton, also of the GCSO, released a statement Wednesday on the passage of Greenville County's new emergency ban.
"The Greenville County Sheriff’s Office is in the process of making sure all citizens and businesses are in compliance with this ordinance. To show the heightened importance of gaining a grasp on this situation, Ordinance # 4438 is the first ordinance that council has passed in recent time that is of an emergency capacity," Hinton said. "The Sheriff’s Office echoes this concern which is why two units from the Community Services Division have been pulled from their normal duties to begin initial enforcement of this ordinance. Deputies are currently in the process of training to effectively enforce this ordinance as well as making a continued effort to educate the public. Due to the fact that this ordinance is civil in nature, deputies will be issuing civil penalty tickets in situations that warrant charges. Deputies will be checking and enforcing the ordinance where substances can be identified and the chemical criteria is met to be determined illegal under this ordinance."
One of the most problematic aspects of the new substances is the amount of time it usually takes law enforcement and policy makers to pick up on their abuse.
“We applaud Spartanburg County Council for taking a proactive step in outlawing the sale of bath salts," Lombardozzi."It’s a necessary step in preventing the proliferation of an already fast-growing problem.”