AUSTIN, Texas - Two weeks ago almost three dozen people fell ill after smoking tainted K2. That's synthetic marijuana outlawed here in Texas. When it comes to K2, law enforcement always seems to be playing catch up to the dealers.
Hundreds of chemical compounds that make K2 are currently listed as illegal, but criminals keeping finding new, legal ways to make it by switching up one of the ingredients.
Last month two dozen people fell violently ill around the ARCH after smoking K2.
Austin police say they captured Charles Hubbard and Amy Goldman on surveillance cameras distributing the drug. Both were arrested. Officers say the drugs came from the Smoke Shop off Montopolis in East Austin.
The department released photos of what they found inside which included more than 30 packages of K2 along with heroin, bath salts and a handgun. The operator of the shop, Keith Nunley, was also taken into custody.
Officers tested the K2 against hundreds of compounds listed as illegal. Five chemicals tested positive.
Not all batches do.
"Had this been one of those compounds that we had not yet identified that was not in the logs than we would not be able to charge the individuals," McIlvain said.
Commander Chris McIlvain says that's what happened last May when 37 people overdosed after ingesting K2. Three people were identified as selling the product, but weren't arrested for dealing because the substances when tested did not show as illegal.
"The whole point of the synthetic is they can take that chemical structure and slightly alter it, each time they do we are back to square one with that particular compound," said McIlvain.
To get ahead of the criminals, the department will ask state legislators this session to create a state law that eliminates the need for a specific match.
"We can simply state, based on the reaction, based on the chemical makeup, that it's similar in nature to this and therefore make it illegal even if we haven't identified this particular chemical structure," said McIlvain.
The proposal would mimic the Federal Analog Act which allows federal agencies such as the DEA to treat any chemical "substantially similar" to an illegal drug as if it were illegal.
Making such a law available to local law enforcement would speed up the process of arresting dealers and therefore, preventing more overdoses.
Right now even testing what is suspected to be K2 can take an average of 18 to 24 hours.
"If we were to stop someone on the street and they had some. The time it takes to confiscate it, test it and determine whether we have a chargeable offense, we can't hold somebody for that length of time and it does make our job very difficult," McIlvain said.
Until there is a better solution to stopping the distribution, McIlvain has this caution, "Not in Texas but we have had people who have died from using synthetic marijuana and it's just impossible to know what you're inhaling. So we're encouraging, we're stressing the public to stay away from it," said McIlvain.
Other legislative agenda items APD will push for this session include sobriety checkpoints, DNA collection for class B misdemeanors and higher and making it a crime to publish an officer's home address or telephone number with intent to cause harm.