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27 Investigates: Synthetic drugs test law enforcers, families

They're a dangerous new breed of drugs.

Synthetic drugs are not even illegal in most of Kentucky because they're sold as something else, like incense, potpourri, or bath salts.

While four Kentucky counties (Rowan, Laurel, Barren, and McCracken) have enacted ordinances to ban their sale, the problem is the makers keep changing the ingredients to skirt the law.

In a special WKYT investigation, our Kristen Kennedy took a hidden camera out on the streets to see just how easily kids can buy it.

"Pink panther, bubble gum, head trip, mind trip, things that usually catch the eye of the younger crowd," says Richmond Police Major Bob Mott as he lists off the names of the drug.

It's a synthetic substance, an incense, that he says children won't stop buying.

"Well, it's just purchased at local stores here. Sold legally over the counter. So it's easy for them to get it. It's just like going in and buying a pack of gum," says Major Mott.

The difference between a pack of gum and herbal incense is huge.

"And of course the children know that if you smoke it, you're gonna get the side effects."

Studies show the side effects of smoking incense are just like smoking marijuana. One is illegal, the other can be picked up at a Richmond gas station. We took our undercover cameras into about half a dozen of them, and came back with something called "Aloha." Other stores known to carry incense in the past, told us they stopped selling it.

Police like Major Mott can't do anything to the clerks that sell incense, it is legal to buy. The problem is when teens buy it and do exactly what the label says not to: consume it.

"We're not having complaints from adults showing up at the hospital or adults out on the street that are having these problems, it's all juveniles and young adults," says Major Mott. His main concern now is getting parents to wise up to what their children are buying just blocks away from home.

"It is very frustrating. Parents aren't aware because they look at it as a legal substance and a lot of them don't know, the reason why they're buying it is to ingest it, not to use it as incense."

Major Mott says even if Madison County outlawed the sale of herbal incense or synthetic marijuana, makers would alter the ingredients to stay one step ahead of the law.

Impact of synthetic drugs on families

And that frustration carries over into the home for parents who have realized the danger.

"She was an energetic girl. She was always out to make somebody laugh, always out for fun," said David Whitaker.

He remembers the simple times.

"At that age in her high school years, was the daughter that anybody would want to have," Whitaker said about his daughter Holly. "She was a great person. She was a really, really great person."

Whitaker said his daughter had the opportunity and promise for a happy and normal life. But just out of high school, one traumatic night turned everything around.

"It was an automatic switch being turned off," said Whitaker.

She survived a house fire that took her boyfriends life.

"She changed friends completely. And when that friend change happened, thats when substance abuse started," said Whitaker.

Substance abuse that began with pills, marijuana, and alcohol.
But after being arrested for possession, the abuse switched to synthetics.

"I heard them talking about smoking potpourri and I thought we're going to Walmart and getting big bags of something," added Whitaker.

Whitaker says his daughter became further detached, leaving he and his wife to raise her three-year-old daughter.

"I worry about her not having a mom at all. My mom's gonna be her mom. And I love my mom to death. She's raising a bunch now," said Tyler Whitaker, Holly's brother.

Separated by a little more than a decade in age, Tyler says he can hardly remember the good times.

"It's a personal hell. You have a person that you look at in a picture and remember this was so wonderful, this was a great time, this was gonna be a great future. And then all of the sudden, it just slaps you in the face and you're wondering, am I gonna go in the house tomorrow and find them dead?" said David.

He says he knows there are more parents out there going through the same thing, and wants something done about it.

"It's so easily accessible to them, something needs to be done," Whitaker told WKYT and had a warning for other parents. "Mom and dad, don't think it won't happen, because it does."

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