A new synthetic drug is becoming more popular in Winona, raising concerns for local authorities who worry that a recent state law outlawing the drug might not go far enough in stemming its use.
The drug, called plant food, can be smoked, ingested or injected. Its active ingredient is mephedrone, which produces euphoria but can also cause intense hallucinations and heart palpitations. In some cases it can lead to death.
The drug is legal, at least until July 1, so police don't have hard data on its prevalence. But Winona Police Chief Paul Bostrack say the number of people being taken to detox is up sharply since it was first mentioned in a police report in November.
In the last five years there has been an average of 63 local detox cases annually, he said. In less than five months this year, officers have already taken 47 people to detox, on pace for about 113 cases.
Plant food has been popular - and banned - in Europe for years but arrived in Winona only recently. Users aren't limited to Winona County but local authorities say other parts of the state don't seem to be having as much of an issue with it.
The issues can be serious, according to a Winona Daily News report. One man high on the drug thought werewolves were attacking him, and another said he saw his heart beating outside of his chest. Some users stop eating or sleeping and can lose 30 to 40 pounds in a month.
Carmaine Sturino, a Winona defense attorney who mainly works with kids, said she was stunned at how many court hearings this year have involved a client referencing plant food.
"It was just crazy," she said. "It was out of nowhere."
In recent months a number of Winona County judges have even addressed the issue in court, at times ordering users to stay away from plant food as a condition of probation.
In some cases, defendants even came into court "just high on this stuff," Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman said.
Hospitals have also noticed a trend. Winona Health currently treats an average of almost one plant-food patients per day.
Rebecca Lamberty, the head of Winona Health's emergency room, called plant food "a very large problem" - not just because treatment is an issue but because patients can feel paranoid or fearful enough that they're physically aggressive toward staff.
She also said she was surprised that users don't reflect a single demographic, instead coming from all ages and backgrounds.
There's not much that hospital staff and law-enforcement officials can do with hallucinating users. Some are sedated and monitored until the drug wears off, while others are taken to detox.
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton signed a law last week that will ban the sale or possession of plant food starting July 1. The measure adds mephedrone and other synthetic drugs such as bath salts to the state's controlled-substance list. Those caught selling or possessing the drugs could be convicted of a felony.
However, it's unclear how effective the law will be. In England, which outlawed plant food last year, studies have shown that about two-thirds of users still consume the drug at the same rate - they just pay twice as much for it.
And Sturino said some of her juvenile clients have said there are dealers who dish it out for free.
"It is the scariest thing since the meth scene," Winona County judges Mary Leahy said.
Information from: Winona Daily News
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)