If you think synthetic drugs are a "city" problem, think again. Police in Virginia say deadly variations are popping up all over the state in places you might not expect.
Like the farms lining the highways and byways along the Shenandoah Valley.
“The greatest increases we’ve seen are actually in Winchester and down into southwest Virginia,” said Victoria Cochran, Virginia’s Deputy Secretary for Public Safety and Homeland Security. “Working areas and rural farmlands.”
The News4 I-Team found Cochran’s agency is keeping some of the best records in the nation on synthetic drug seizures. “What we are trying to address is how these drugs move and where they go,” she said. “To understand these manufacturers and distributors to clamp down on them.”
That's why, she said, Virginia invested in some of the most high-tech equipment available to screen drugs seized by state and local police.
“The packaging doesn't show what is actually in it," said Virginia Department of Forensic Sciences Director Linda Jackson, who oversees the state’s crime labs. "Someone using it doesn't know what they have. Nor do our scientists when they do the analysis."
But her chemists showed the I-Team how they can now simply wave a drug sample in front of the nosecone of their new DART, which stands for Direct Analysis in Real Time Mass Spectrometry, to identify previously unknown chemical combinations for the first time.
And they've realized synthetic drug use in the state really depends on where you live. "It really is regionalized,” Jackson said. “As a lab, we're not sure of the reason for that. But it definitely is measurable."
Between January and August of this year, lab results show seizures in Northern Virginia produced more chemicals typically found in synthetic drugs like Bath Salts, Flakka, Molly and NBomb.
But Winchester, Roanoke and the western half of the state had a much higher number of synthetic cannabinoids, typically leaves dosed with chemicals that can be smoked.
"The information we're getting through our investigations is that the majority of synthetic drugs available on the street level are coming from other locations like D.C., West Virginia, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh," according to Lt. Wally Stotlemyer of the Winchester Police Department.
He explained their small agricultural town sits at the crossroads of several major highways linking it directly to big city drug markets.
He sports a shaggy beard, he explained, to help him in his undercover drug operations, which helped him seize packets he showed to the I-Team. He said they had been smuggled in from West Virginia.
"It's not an African-American drug. It's not a white suburbia drug," Stotlemyer said. “These are marijuana users who, for whatever reason, decided to use the synthetic cannabinoids because it was a little cheaper or a little easier to get at the time."
But things turned deadly this year in Winchester in what's been dubbed "The Smarties Case" -- when a woman died after eating just one candy purchased on the Internet.
Detectives originally thought the small candy had been dosed with the synthetic hallucinogen NBomb, but Lt. Stotlemyer told the I-Team the crime lab discovered it was one of the first cases involving the synthetic drug flubromazolam, which has been linked to a high number of deaths.
"If that mixture is just enough to do something to your body once ingested, you have absolutely no control over that,” Stotlemyer said. “You're taking your life in your hands every single time you use one of these drugs."