MURFREESBORO, Tenn.-Dylan Evans was a freshman making good grades and learning to play piano at Middle Tennessee State University last fall.
Then he started using synthetic stimulants.
Evans hadn't used "real" drugs before; at first he thought the synthetic stimulants he was buying legally as "bath salts" and "plant food" were safe and helped him focus when he was learning piano. The 19-year-old could buy them right off the counter in convenience stores around the MTSU campus.
He soon discovered there were dangers that weren't fake.
"It's the only drug you can swipe your [bank] card for," Evans said, shaking his head. "It's not healthy."
His weight fell from 200 pounds to 165 in a month, and his dependency grew. By spring, he had lost his scholarship and dropped out of school. He couldn't hold down a job and started stealing from his family to pay for drugs, he said.
An overdose of prescription medication that landed him in the hospital about six weeks ago finally gave him the chance to get help, he said.
"That's what pulled me out of it, going to a psych ward," Evans said. "I'm 19. A psych ward. Without an experience like that, I wouldn't have quit using."
Until fairly recently, synthetic drugs were sold openly and legally in convenience stores and in "head shops" across Tennessee and the nation, according to officials in Franklin County, about 30 miles south of Murfreesboro.
Often called "bath salts," sold under names such as Ivory Wave, Cloud 9, Ocean, White Lightning, Hurricane Charlie, Scarface, Red Dove, White Dove, Molly's Plant Food, PMA, White Mamba.
Side effects: Insomnia, hallucinations and delusions, paranoia, rapid heartbeat, anxiety, suicidal thoughts
Sold under names like K2, Spice, JH/Kush, Vampire Blood, and Lazy Cakes, Simmer and Unwind, which are brownies containing synthetic marijuana.
Side effects: Sleepiness, relaxation, reduced blood pressure; at higher doses, hallucinations, delusions, rapid heart rate, paleness, vomiting, elevated blood pressure, seizures
Source: Franklin County Prevention Coalition, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
New state and federal laws now target synthetic drugs that mirror the effects of marijuana, cocaine and Ecstasy, but Franklin County authorities say the legislation is too specific.
The laws list particular chemicals that are illegal, but authorities say the synthetic drug makers are too crafty to get caught up in specifics. They simply use a chemical that's similar but not identical to what's named in the laws.
Some of the packages officials have seized in Tennessee claim they don't contain banned substances such as JWH-018 and JWH-073 -- chemicals in fake pot -- and similar materials.
But Winchester, Tenn., Police Chief Dennis Young and Drug Court Director Ron Bailey say those labels mean nothing.
An independent lab analysis showed every chemical the labels claimed were absent actually were present in fakes seized in Franklin County, they said.
"And they say, 'Not for human consumption,'" noted Bailey, but he said sometimes the materials are sold as incense with a smoking pipe included as the "incense burner."
GAP IN THE LAW
Synthetic drugs are available in Hamilton County and Chattanooga, but some local law enforcement officials say they don't appear to be a major problem.
"I don't recall any," Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd said. "I would have to check with our narcotics agents. I know Middle Tennessee has seen a lot of them."
Young, Franklin County Sheriff Tim Fuller and Franklin County Drug Prevention Coalition Director Tabatha Curtis have been working to introduce stopgap local legislation to hold off the synthetics until new state laws can be passed.
They say they've talked to some state legislators, but none have said they'll submit new legislation in the 2012 session. Revised state and federal laws will supersede local ordinances, but until then it's every community for itself.
Municipal ordinances in the Franklin County towns of Winchester, Decherd, Estill Springs, Cowan and Huntland ban "any substance that mimics the effects of any controlled substances," broadly defining substances used to make synthetic drugs, according to Winchester's version.
Kimball, in Marion County, recently passed a similar measure.
Under Winchester's ordinance, violators face a $50 fine plus costs for each violation. Each package of synthetics is a separate violation.
None of the measures in Franklin County address online purchases, but mere possession is illegal, officials said.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures' last count in August, at least 38 states had passed legislation to snuff out synthetic marijuana and 30 had passed laws to ban synthetic cocaine.
In March, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency issued an emergency one-year ban of five compounds used to make fake marijuana, but listed fake cocaine components only as "chemicals of concern."
But those laws are too specific to be completely effective and the fakes too readily available, officials in Franklin County said.
Nationwide, poison control officials report bad reactions to synthetics are exploding.
In 2010, the 57 poison control centers around the U.S. received more than 3,200 calls about synthetic drugs for serious reactions such as increased blood pressure and heart rates, agitation, hallucinations, extreme paranoia and delusions, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.
But between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31, 2011, those numbers tripled to more than 9,700, records show.
In Franklin County this year, one of those calls was about "Brandon," 26, a serious pot smoker for more than 15 years.
Police and his friends found him on all fours, foaming at the mouth and not breathing. His muscles were locked, his fingers digging into the soil as emergency medical technicians struggled to keep his mouth open so he could get air.
Brandon, now enrolled in the 12th Judicial District Drug Court in Winchester, said all he remembers is smoking a "hog leg," a joint of JH/Kush-brand synthetic marijuana, about as big around as his little finger.
"Whatever's in it, it can't be good for you," Brandon said.
Curtis said adolescent users don't understand the dangers.
In mid-October, Curtis counseled a 12-year-old boy who had dangerous reactions to synthetic marijuana. The boy said he threw up, had "a horrible headache and felt like his heart was going to beat out of his chest," but he had continued to smoke fake pot, Curtis said.
Children and teens "don't have the mentality to know what kind of damage this is doing to their bodies," she said.
CAMPAIGN AGAINST SYNTHETICS
Dylan Evans' mother, Brooke Wyant, said her family's story should change their minds.
Wyant, 44, says she initially thought substances that were being legally sold in stores were safe. She wants lawmakers to craft legislation that makes possession and sale of synthetic drugs carry the same penalties as the real drugs.
"Our government needs to see it for what it is," she said.
To parents, she said, "Be nosy. Find out what your kids are doing and who they're doing it with. Find out where they're spending their money."
Dylan Evans said his mantra now is "do the next right thing."
"It's getting less and less difficult even after just a few days," he said. "I'm the lucky one."
He's got a date to speak with high schoolers next week about his experience with synthetic drugs.
"They'll grab you by the backpack and hold on till somebody cuts the straps off," he said. "These drugs, man, they're dangerous."
Staff writer Beth Burger contributed to this story.