Created: 04/22/2014 12:12 PM KAALtv.com
By: Ellery McCardle
Note: This story was originally posted in September 2013. We're re-publishing it because Anchor/Reporter Ellery McCarldle won a 2014 Edward R. Murrow award for this piece for investigative journalism.
(ABC 6 NEWS) -- At times you hear us talk about synthetic drug busts in the area. This kind of drug use has been on the rise in the past few years. Police are still trying to stop the spread.
The drugs we're talking about are known as K2 and bath salts. They're supposed to mimic drugs like marijuana and meth but one thing that sets synthetic drugs apart is a few years ago you could legally buy them in Minnesota.
In southeastern Minnesota, the core of the synthetic drug problem is in Winona County.
With the drugs can come strange and extremely violent behavior. Some users have reported seeing demons and werewolves.One Rochester man had a bad reaction to these drugs and warns of the dangers.
"I remember laying on the ground thinking I was going to die," said Cat Ryan.
Just a few puffs of K2 and he was out of it.
"I had major anxiety. I thought I was going to have a heart attack," said Ryan.
Despite those feelings, Ryan also tried using bath salts.
"I couldn't be in the room with people, my mind was racing," said Ryan.
Those were during his teenage years. Growing up in Rochester. Deep into drug abuse.
"Ecstacy, acid, psychedelic mushrooms," said Ryan.
At 20-years-old he ended up in the Olmsted County Adult Detention Center. There he realized he had enough.
In 2010, synthetic drugs were new to Winona but the problem came on strong. The calls started coming in.
"We were getting two, three, four calls a day," said Chief Paul Bostrack of the Winona Police Department.
Police responded. Many times finding themselves in violent situations.
"We had a person come out of his house with a gun, shot a car thinking someone was stealing it and there was nobody doing that," said Sheriff Dave Brand of Winona County.
Some of Chief Bostrack's officers were injured on scene. Some of them with broken bones.
Doctors were often faced with unruly patients.
"They often require doses of medications that are quite high to settle them down, higher doses than you might use in other mental health situations," said Dr. Whyte of Winona Health.
The stories around town got stranger and more frequent, as evidenced by testimony from Winona County attorneys.
"There were people thinking werewolves were chasing them," said Christina Davenport, Assistant Winona County Attorney.
"A mother was running through a local cemetery because she thought her children were dead, looking for their graves," said Karin Sonneman, Winona County attorney.
At some point police figured it out their beautiful river town had a nasty problem. Synthetic drug use.
The drugs are known as K2, bath salts, bliss, cloud nine, genie. The list goes on.
The Winona County Sheriff's Office says a few years ago cocaine was one of the most confiscated drugs in the county. Now that's not the case. Instead its synthetic drugs.
Officers don't know why these substances have become such a big problem in Winona County. They do know a lot of people are getting them online and they're made overseas and they do know these drugs are going back and forth into Wisconsin.
What's inside these drugs is often still a mystery.
"There's no control in place when these people are manufacturing synthetic drugs. They're not being done in a pharmaceutical grade pharmacy or clean lab," said Sgt. Tom Claymon of the Olmsted County Sheriff's Office.
As police responded to distress calls, they were nearly powerless, because at that time synthetic drugs were still legal.
"You could go to the head shop. There was comfort to it and ease on my conscious just being able to go there," said Ryan.
It was so easy for teens like him to pick up a few packets and learn online what to do. Many thought, 'if its legal, what's the big deal?' But that perception changed when lawmakers took action.
In 2011 possessing or selling synthetic drugs became illegal in Minnesota.
Two years into the ban, police in Winona County say the problem has gotten somewhat better. But authorities admit the law isn't perfect.
That includes Assistant Winona County Attorney Christina Davenport, who says the law covering bath salts simply isn't strong enough.
"Someone would need a high level of criminal history points in order to actually go to prison for the offense," said Davenport.
In July she and Sonneman testified before state lawmakers, recommending that synthetic drugs be reclassified as a narcotic.
If that happens, synthetics would fall under the same umbrella as methamphetamine and cocaine. Meaning tougher penalties are likely.
We wanted to know the number of arrests in our area for these substances since the ban in 2011. Winona and Olmsted have the highest arrest rates with 23 and 28 respectively.
It may not seem like a lot, but the problem is spreading. Officers are seeing a ripple effect going on. More of these drugs are going from Winona to Olmsted.
Sgt. Claymon showed us packets of K2. they were confiscated in a huge raid in July where some $200,000 worth was found.
"Depending on how we as a community react to it dictates how it will spread," said Sgt. Claymon.
As for Ryan, he says he's stopped using synthetic drugs and has been clean for about a year. He's still in rehab, but says he's happier now and ready for a fresh start.
"I'm actually looking into ministry and being a missionary," said Ryan.
Winona County continues to educate the public about these drugs. Attorneys hope the full House and Senate will address the synthetic drug laws in next year's legislative session and create tougher penalties.