Past midnight, Kat Green arrived home from her police shift exhausted. She pulled the ponytail from her hair, slid into pajamas and clicked on the television. Then her smartphone started ringing with urgent messages.
Mass drug overdose. Party at a ranch house outside of town.
Green yanked her black police shirt over her head and sped off into the spring night. On the way, more information trickled in: At least a half-dozen young adults sick, some near death. She knew she had to be strong. In a town of just 1,300 people, she was bound to know some of them.
As the squad car raced up a dusty gravel driveway near 1 a.m., emergency lights flickering, Green spotted three young men writhing on the front lawn. The lanky one in the front looked familiar.
"Oh my God," she thought, running closer. "That's my son."
Colton, 20, was still breathing, but his mouth foamed and his eyes rolled back in his head. He could only growl.
Green grabbed her son by the shoulders. She tried to rouse life from his rigid body. "Colton! Colton!" she hollered in his face. "Son, what did you take?"
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From rural Oklahoma to suburban Minnesota, a tide of dangerous synthetic drugs is causing mayhem and baffling police and prosecutors across the nation.
Packaged and sold as innocuous products such as "herbal incense" and "bath salts," the drugs are touted by users as legal alternatives to marijuana, cocaine and other controlled substances that can bring stiff penalties and jail time in even small amounts.
But the consequences of using them are proving to be devastating.
This spring, synthetic drugs sent shock through a suburban Twin Cities neighborhood after a house party went awry. Eleven teens and young adults had to be rushed to hospitals after snorting a synthetic drug in Blaine. A 19-year-old died hours later after doctors removed his life support.
In Mississippi, a man high on bath salts stole a gun from one sheriff's deputy, then shot another dead. He told deputies that he saw the devil and broke through gurney straps and medical tape when they tried to force him into an ambulance.
In Iowa, an 18-year-old student smoked synthetic marijuana with some friends, then told them he felt like he was in hell. He went home and shot himself.
In an upscale suburb of New Orleans, a doctor's son, high on bath salts, slit his throat in front of his family, then later took a shotgun to his head.
Outside Seattle, a 38-year-old man killed his wife, then himself, during a high-speed police chase in April. Police found their 5-year-old son dead at home. Both parents had bath salts in their systems.
Altogether, poison control centers have received more than 6,600 calls about designer synthetics this year, 10 times more than the first half of 2010. Synthetic drugs have been linked or suspected in more than 20 deaths nationally in the past year, while emergency rooms are treating more patients who have overdosed on sometimes tiny amounts of designer synthetics.
Mark Ryan, director of the Louisiana Poison Center, said he has seen "bizarre reports" from all over the country.
"The severity of the cases is what makes it so bad," Ryan said. "The symptoms are severe and people are a threat not only to themselves, but to those around them."
The new drugs are easy to find. Merchants promote the drugs on the Internet, and some are available on the shelves of record stores and smoke shops. Authorities believe the drugs are often manufactured by rogue chemists in foreign countries.
Federal officials claim many of the new designer drugs are already illegal under existing laws. To strengthen the hands of police and prosecutors, lawmakers in Washington and many states are trying to combat the burgeoning crisis by banning specific substances in designer synthetics and their chemical cousins. In Minnesota, a new drug law with that purpose went into effect on July 1.
But few prosecutors have brought charges under the laws, which have yet to be fully tested in court.