Ron and Nancy were recreational drug users, and on a few weekend occasions they snorted cocaine in their Porter County garage while their young children slept.
But in April, Ron found a way to get the same feeling for almost 10 times as long, at less than half the price and without the stress of buying through a drug dealer.
"We were kind of amazed by the strength," he said. "I'd say we started at 9 o'clock at night, and I got dressed and went to work at 6 o'clock in the morning, still wide awake."
This synthetic version of cocaine and methamphetamine is one of several legal synthetic drugs being sold at local gas stations, smoke shops and on the Internet. Fake marijuana is another popular choice for consumers. But according to doctors and law enforcement, these designer drugs are merely tweaked versions of the originals -- or chemical concoctions that can be even more potent.
Ron and Nancy, who asked that their real names not be used to protect their privacy, said the increased potency was unnerving -- and Nancy swore never to touch bath salts again after being unable to shake the jittery high for hours.
"Some people think mistakenly that because something is legal, that it is OK and it doesn't have any harmful side effects," said Dr. Stevan Vuckovic, associate medical director of Franciscan St. Anthony's emergency department in Crown Point.
In the first two weeks of June alone, Indiana's Poison Center fielded about 30 calls relating to bath salts from emergency rooms in Lake and Porter counties.
While Ron's switch to bath salts from cocaine was supposed to save money and provide a legal alternative, he said it landed him in an ER bed within three months. He had lost 30 pounds, his appetite, his ability to sleep and his home after Nancy had enough of the lies he told to hide his addiction.
Now reunited with his family and in the beginning stages of rehab, Ron says he never imagined he would have gotten hooked so fast.
"You will not know you are addicted until it is too late," he said. "The next thing you know, you've got all your things packed in a vehicle, you have no where to go and you have the police looking for you."
While people have a personal responsibility to make wise decisions, Ron said he felt the federal government should prevent harmful products such as bath salts from being sold.
"They failed us on this one, man," he said. "Completely failed us."
What's in a name?
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency would like to do more, said DEA Special Agent Will Taylor, but the companies producing the synthetic drugs are exploiting legal loopholes to avoid prosecution.
"They are marked clearly 'not for human consumption,' and that's a way a lot of these manufacturers and distributors are able to circumvent the law," said Taylor, who is based in Chicago.
With a nudge and a wink, companies market synthetic marijuana, such as K2 and Spice, as incense, and sell cocaine and meth knockoffs as plant food and bath salts, he said.
But the products are anything but what they are portrayed to be, said Dr. Brent Furbee, medical director of the Indiana Poison Center.
"(There's) probably the same difference between a bar of Dove soap and a package of methamphetamine," Furbee said, comparing the abused bath salts with what many use to soak in the tub.
And with no quality control standards for these designer drugs, the chemical concentrations could vary among packets of the same brand.
"You don't know what other agents are being dumped into the bag that you're using, you don't know what kind of contaminants there are," said St. Anthony's Vuckovic.
Few even know where the products are manufactured.
Synthetic cannabinoids were developed and researched by universities in the 1960s and drug maker Pfizer in the 1970s, according to the American College of Emergency Physicians.
Taylor said some of the recent incarnations of the cannabinoids and bath salts have been traced to China, India and regions of the U.S. But because present-day manufacturers are constantly developing new, legal alternatives, they are not technically breaking the law -- and, in turn, tracking them is often not within DEA jurisdiction, Taylor said.
An employee at a local store that sold an incense brand commonly used as synthetic marijuana did not know where the products originated, and declined to name a distributor.
"As far as where it is from or what people do with it, I have no idea," the employee said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Banning the bad
A drug is classified as a controlled substance, and therefore illegal in the eyes of the DEA, based on its chemical compounds, said Dennis Wichern, DEA assistant special agent in charge for Indiana. The constant evolution of designer drugs can give federal agents fits.
"People that are inventing these drugs, if they change a molecule or two off, it is not deemed an illegal substance," Wichern said.
Outlawing the new substances requires the necessary time to conduct research on the long- and short-term effects. But in the interim, the DEA can place certain chemicals on an emergency controlled-substances list for a one-year period -- and in March, five compounds used in synthetic marijuana were added to the list.
On Friday, selling or possessing most synthetic marijuana -- but not bath salts -- became illegal in Indiana. Illinois instituted a similar ban in January.
DEA agents in Indiana are working on a few cases in light of the five compounds being made illegal, Wichern said, but he could not release details due to the ongoing investigations.
"Whether they materialize into something or not remains to be seen," he said.
But because the synthetics are legally defined by their chemical structures, many companies started marketing new marijuana knockoffs before the law even went into effect. These updated versions do not contain any of the 25-plus chemicals banned in state or federal laws.
The Federal Analog Act addresses the synthetic knockoffs of already controlled substances, but one has to prove businesses intend for consumers to ingest the products, the DEA's Taylor said.
According to the website of one Internet company, K2incense.org, its "new products are 100 percent legal!" It claims its products are not for human consumption and that K2 is safe -- but it goes on to say consumers should watch out for counterfeit K2 that could contain illegal chemicals and be dangerous.
Wichern called the proclamations that only K2 counterfeits pose health risks a "marketing ploy."
While the website attacked "basement chemists" making knockoffs of the K2 brand, the site declined to reveal the K2 manufacturer, citing a "contractual agreement."
Taylor said the DEA finds it suspicious the companies are selling such small amounts for such high prices -- 3 grams for $20 to $30, for instance -- just for incense purposes, when consumers could go buy real bath salt in bulk for much less.
The Times was unable to connect with someone from K2incense.org for comment.
Legal highs yield personal, community lows
The adverse effects of using synthetic marijuana and bath salts include heart palpitations and increased blood pressure, according to doctors. With bath salts alone, possible effects include hallucinations, extreme paranoia and seizures. And in the past six months, doctors say they have seen complications related to the synthetics spread across the region.
Therapists from Franciscan St. Margaret Health's Behavioral Health Center said in one of their cases, a man shot himself in the face while under the influence of bath salts. In May, police in Jasper County found a DeMotte woman known to abuse bath salts sitting on the bed in a damaged hotel room, muttering about evil spirits and needing to scribble on the walls to protect herself from them.
Doctors said chemicals in some bath salts are similar to meth, which is considered one of the most addictive illegal drugs, according to Detective Jaime Harris of the Lake County Sheriff's Department.
Harris said the Sheriff's Department has seen isolated incidents involving abuse of designer drugs such as bath salts, but not a major influx. He said it was more common for them to encounter cocaine, heroin and marijuana, though that did not mean synthetic drugs were not a concern for the county.
Moreover, drug issues in general affect the entire community, he said.
"In my opinion, the vast majority of the crimes that we encounter are due to narcotic-related users," Harris said. "Our burglaries that we deal with, our car jackings, our auto theft, a significant amount of murders are directly related to the narcotics trade."
For those on probation or parole, bath salts and fake marijuana are the substances of choice because the compounds cannot be detected in the average urine drug test, said Allen Grecula, director of education at the Frontline Foundations substance-abuse facility that has worked with such clients.
Tests for certain compounds have had to go to a special lab as far away as Pennsylvania, and last month AIT Laboratories in Indianapolis announced it will be one of the first labs in the country to offer special urine testing for synthetic marijuana. But the average urinary drug test cannot detect these designer drugs, Grecula said.
"It can seem like a great idea ... until you see the compounded effects," Grecula said, adding that the facility treats clients addicted to synthetics as they would those dependent on cocaine and meth.
For Ron, the one-time cocaine user now reunited with his family, bath salts gave him the euphoria without the physical nasal side-effects that come with snorting cocaine.
No one at work or in public knew he was on it, he said. And though he felt energized and could not sit still -- sometimes working on home improvement projects into the early hours of the morning -- Ron said using the synthetic drug to get through the day was one of the worst decisions he made.
He said he hoped sharing his story would dissuade others from experimenting with bath salts.
"You just don't know how severe it can be," he said.