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Dale Wetzel, Associated Press, Published October 11 2012

AUDIO OF 911 CALL: ND AG says law not keeping pace with synthetic drugs

BISMARCK — The girl was screaming incoherently as she drove along a northeastern North Dakota road. Feeling trapped in a “cartoon world” after smoking synthetic marijuana, she shrieked in response to the 911 operator's patient questions: What's the problem? Where are you?

“I'm driving!” the unidentified teen yells. “Help me, please!”

The recording, played Thursday at a legislative hearing, illustrates the danger posed by synthetic drugs, the use of which is becoming “epidemic” in North Dakota, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said.

Synthetic drug overdoses have killed at least two young people in northeastern North Dakota and sent several to hospital, he said.

North Dakota already bans many types of synthetic marijuana and stimulant drugs that mimic the effects of amphetamines. But the changing chemical makeup of the drugs, which are often marketed as bath salts or incense, make it more difficult to outlaw specific substances, Stenehjem said.

His office is drafting legislation to make the substances illegal if they have a “core chemical” that's common to different types of synthetic marijuana or hallucinogens. The bills will be introduced when the Legislature begins in January.

“The hallucinogens, the synthetic LSDs, are something that our law really isn't completely up to speed on, and so that's something that we'll be working on,” Stenehjem said.

He also plans a separate legal strategy: Outlawing the sale of any substance if the seller knows his or her customer is going to use it to get high.

“The problem isn't necessarily the penalties. The penalties are plenty severe,” Stenehjem said later in an interview with The Associated Press. “The problem is defining exactly what substances are we talking about, because to get a criminal prosecution, you have to specify what it is that is illegal.”

Charlene Schweitzer, a forensic scientist in North Dakota's state crime laboratory, said the law needs to include additional classes of synthetic drugs that are made to mimic the effects of marijuana, stimulants and LSD.

Schweitzer and Hope Olson, the lab's director, said the drugs often have chemical differences and can require days to analyze, compared to the short time it takes to verify a marijuana sample.

More than 40 states have approved bans on synthetic marijuana and bath salts, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks proposals in state capitols.

Stenehjem said the approach of outlawing substances that are knowingly sold so the user can get high would be unique to North Dakota.

“We are seeing people who are showing up in the emergency rooms, that law enforcement are being called to, by the hundreds,” he said. “I fear that unless we get a handle on this situation immediately, that we will see more people dying who are taking these substances.”

Julie Lawyer, an assistant attorney general, played the 911 recording for members of the Legislature's interim Judiciary Committee on Thursday. Several blanched as they listened to the girl's screams.

Police reports say the girl was a 17-year-old resident of Larimore, in rural Grand Forks County. Lawyer said the teen had taken “a couple of hits” from a pipe containing synthetic marijuana at a Grafton home last May. The drug was packaged as “100 Percent Pure Evil,” and contained an ingredient that is not illegal under current North Dakota law.

The girl said later she believed she was in a “cartoon world,” Lawyer said.

“She was screaming in the call because she was so scared and frustrated, because she knew in her mind what she wanted to say,” Lawyer said. “She just couldn't get her mouth to form the words, and she couldn't get the words out.”

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.