CHARLESTON -- Making synthetic marijuana and similar drugs illegal can almost make the situation worse.
Dealing with that possibility is what a local drug prosecutor says he thinks is a benefit of a different approach to combating the drugs.
Bryant Hitchings, the Coles County assistant state's attorney who handles drug cases, said state laws against synthetics drugs have to be specific about the composition of the substances they're banning.
It then only takes a small change in the chemical makeup of the substances to mean the laws doesn't apply to them anymore, he explained. That puts a similar, still harmful but not illegal drug on the streets, he said.
"Some people are saying, 'If we control it, are we in effect making it worse?'" Hitchings said.
Hitchings joined other officials in praising as "a great idea" the synthetic drug ordinances that Coles County and the cities of Charleston and Mattoon all recently adopted.
The ordinances impose fines for possessing synthetic drugs and related materials defined in more general terms than what's in state law. The ordinances don't prevent someone being prosecuted at the state level, however.
"I think it's a great way to assist in the prosecution of it," Hitchings said.
The most frequently mentioned substances identified as synthetic drugs are synthetic marijuana and what are called "bath salts," which sound like they have a legitimate use but officials say are actually used for the narcotic effect.
Both substances are hallucinogens and the bath salts can make a user paranoid and "really aggressive," said Tom Houser, an Illinois State Police officer who until a recent duty transfer was commander of the Mattoon-based East Central Illinois Task Force drug investigation unit.
Bath salts are ingested by snorting or mixing with a liquid and drinking, Houser said. Hitchings said the most common way of using synthetic marijuana is to spray a liquid chemical on dried wood chips before smoking.
Houser agreed that synthetic drugs are "changing all the time" and manufacturers and users are "skirting Illinois law." With the local ordinances, law enforcement can more easily approach stores and other places that sell the drugs to try to address the issue, he said.
The ordinances were developed after Coles County State's Attorney Brian Bower met with county law enforcement officials around the end of last year. That was for what he said was a talk on how "we could be on the same page for the best way to address" synthetic drugs.
The idea was to add "one more tool to use" against the substances and also to develop a uniform approach to the issue across the county, Bower said.
"You shouldn't be able to cross a line and go from it being illegal to legal," he said.
Bower said he was starting to work on the issue in Charleston when he was the city's attorney before his election as state's attorney in 2012. It was a year or two before that when authorities starting seeing reports of more use of synthetic drugs, mostly by young adults, he said.
Houser mentioned a similar timeline for when police began seeing the substances, first in shops and now mostly purchased online. Hitchings also said most of the drugs are bought online and a purchasers can "essentially set up their own little shop" to prepare and distribute the drugs.
That's what happened in one case from an arrest in Charleston, Hitchings said. The suspect eventually pleaded guilty to a charge accusing him of having marijuana but couldn't be charged with also having a synthetic because tests showed that substance wasn't illegal under state law, he said.
There's been an "influx" of synthetic marijuana and bath salts in Mattoon the last few years and what's "alarming" is they're mostly used by those high school and early college age, city police Chief Jeff Branson said.
He said he hopes the ordinances will "get people's attention" and will give law enforcement "a way to handle it at the local level." A 16-year-old with no record of trouble who does "something stupid," for example, could learn a lesson if charged under the ordinance, he added.
"We might be able to straighten out this kid without putting a blemish on his state record," Branson said.