MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - Synthetic drugs - including so called "legal weed" - have been linked to thousands of hospital visits and dozens of deaths. At least three people have died in South Carolina. So why is the product still readily available for you and your teens?
It's been a question WMBF News has been posing to authorities and lawmakers since out first investigation last October, when concerned parents came to us.
We went to Columbia in search of answers and what we learned may surprise you.
"It was very scary. I just couldn't believe my child did that," one frightened parent commented during our first special report.
It's a drug abuse story you may think you've heard so many times before. That parent explained, "Just about every night I lay down I cry. It's terrifying."
Heartbroken parents and regretful teens. But the drug in this story is different. You see, it's as easy for your teen to buy as a pack of gum.
We first told you about these concerned Horry County parents and their teens in October 2012 - addicted they say to something many call "legal weed." Two of them were caught high on surveillance video.
"We did toss a rock through the window, because we were high on this. You can't really think when you're on it you know," recalls Eric Hall.
Eric Hall and his 15-year-old friend were trying to break into a Little River adult video party store named Celebrations for more of the synthetic weed marketed as incense.
Store employees sold it to a WMBF News crew along with a pipe to smoke it during an undercover buy. Later on camera when we asked," Can you answer any questions about people under 18 buying products here?" they replied, "No sir. Nobody under 18 buys products. No sir."
But minors tell us they get it there and everywhere. And now in February 2013 our undercover cameras caught more legal weed transactions at different stores along the Grand Strand.
"I was furious, and I was hurt," cries Mona Stamper, mother of teen Josh. Mona has begged Celebrations and its employees to stop selling the product to her addicted son.
"His words to me, I can sell this to a 5-year-old if I want," Mona explains.
On top of that, she says the staff encouraged her son to engage in a sex act, multiple times while inside the store. And our undercover cameraman stumbled onto two men who appeared to be engaged in a sex act in one of the back video rooms.
Their door - open.
"Your story is very informative, and it bothers me, it bothers me," admits the Attorney General for South Carolina, Alan Wilson.
We traveled to Columbia to show Attorney General Alan Wilson the investigation we first brought you in October of last year.
Wilson says, "The story you shared with me was shocking and it never stops being shocking."
Then Michael Maely questioned, "For parents who say why can't you pull this stuff off the shelves, what would you say?"
Attorney General Wilson replied, "Well like I said, it's an evolution, this law is evolved. We've now got a law that I believe is comprehensive. Now executing this law is the next step. These things take time. That's not an excuse. I fact that's inexcusable, but it's the reality."
"How does it make you feel that it's still being sold, despite the sort of class ban on cannabinoids?" ponders Michael Maely"
"Passing a law doesn't fix the problem, Passing the law is just the beginning. We've now got a law that I believe is based on model legislation used in other states; I believe that it is good legislation," the Attorney General responds.
Last year lawmakers passed a new law that was much more broad with these schedule one drugs. There are dozens of compounds listed, but it turns out just weeks after they passed this, the makers of this legal weed came up with something new.
"We started seeing new compounds and we were able to identify what they were. But when we started looking at the structures we realized they were not covered by the current law," derives Dr. Wendy Bell, lieutenant of the SLED Toxicology Department.
Dr. Bell is an expert on these products and has been the supervisor of the drug lab since 2007.
Michael Maely asked Dr Bell, "How frustrating is it for you, that when you pass laws that seem aggressive, in weeks or months, there's already something new that's not illegal?"
"Unfortunately this is our reality that we know we're going to be dealing with for some time in the foreseeable future," Dr. Bell believes.
"Are you not surprised stores are selling this as frequently as this one is in our story?" questions Michael Maely.
"I'm not. It's a large industry, large money making industry and they're profiting handsomely from it," Dr. Bell assures.
As for the sex element of the store, Dr. Bell admits the connection in too common. "Unfortunately sex for drugs has been a trade that's gone on for centuries, so that's not new, but this is the first story that we've heard that these substances had been targeted at teens in that manner."
And while teens may be educated about the product, it comes with a learning curve to many. When we first inquired with DHEC about the so called "legal weed," a spokesman said he'd never heard of the term used to describe the product.
The laws are tricky to decipher too. Some drug experts referred us to the website for the National Conference of State Legislatures. It lists South Carolina having a general class ban on so called synthetic cannabinoids, which could be interpreted as banning all forms of this product.
Dr. Bell says that's hardly the case and even creating new legislation to ban just these newer compounds will take time.
"There's a process for a reason, we want to make sure that we're not banning anything that is useful, that it does have a legitimate use," Dr. Bell explains.
Dr. Bell says the law passed last year can't get the newer synthetics off the shelves but it's working on the older drugs.
"We've had several successful cases where the ban has worked; sometimes the banned substances are in combination with these new ones. So that would make the product overall banned, so there are successful cases going to court."
So why is this stuff still being sold in Horry County stores, Horry County authorities originally told WMBF News this was legal, so we can only assume that this stuff contains that new product that's not yet banned, SLED has given that to DHEC and DHEC eventually will present that to the legislature, hoping to get it added to the banned list.
Meanwhile state leaders say continued communication among authorities, concerned parents and teens could give this drug story a less tearful ending.
"The next step is to educate people and that's what you're doing right now, and thank you for being here today and talking to me, this needs to happen more," begs Attorney General Alan Wilson.
We have asked Horry County Police for details about what was in the packages of synthetic weed they tested, and the Solicitor's Office says there is a possibility for charges involving that store where the sex acts occurred.
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