IOWA CITY, Iowa - Iowa City is quickly becoming a top supplier of synthetic drugs to kids from all across Eastern Iowa, according to police.
"We're having carloads of juveniles showing up from Burlington or Fort Madison at two-three in the morning, coming here to buy [synthetic drugs]," said Paul Batcheller, an overnight police sergeant in Iowa City.
Legal synthetic substances are sold at a handful of downtown businesses, under names like "Bizzaro." At least one business that sells synthetics remains open 24-hours. Last year the federal government banned the sale of the popular drug K2, but drug producers have found a loophole in the system allowing them to legally produce similar blends, according to police.
"We have to approach those [under the influence] with extreme caution, like you'd approach someone on LSD," Batcheller said.
Packaging on the labels often brands the products as incense, but police believe 100 percent of buyers are smoking the substance to get high. Police have cited kids as young as 13-years-old for curfew violations after being discovered in downtown buying synthetic drugs in the middle of the night.
"[Kids] came up from Mount Pleasant, snuck out, their parents didn't know they were up here," Lt. Mike Brotherton recalled of a recent encounter at 3 a.m. with a group of buyers.
While there is no law requiring kids to be 18 to buy the product, some businesses refuse to sell to minors.
Data from MECCA Services, a substance abuse center in Iowa City, shows that more teens are admitting to using synthetic drugs. More than four percent of adolescents surveyed by the center this year reported using synthetic drugs. That compares to just over one percent in 2011 and 2012.
"There are reports of permanent facial tics being reported and we really don't know what this is doing to a young person's mind long term," said Steve Steine, a clinical coordinator at MECCA.
Amy Sorensen, a teacher who's daughter is currently struggling with an addiction to synthetic drugs, started the group "Iowans Against Synthetics" in response to the sudden popularity of the drugs. The group recently protested against the sale of synthetics outside of the Den in Iowa City.
"I think it's absolutely ridiculous that you can buy this stuff," Sorensen, who lives in Coralville, said. "Kids think it's okay to buy this stuff."