A June meeting between U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson and law enforcement personnel frightened the lawmaker.
The use of bath salts in south central Missouri was becoming an epidemic, Rolla, Mo., Police Chief Mark Kearse, told her.
"On the way back, I stopped at a sketchy convenience store," Emerson said. "I went in to find the gum I wanted. There on the left, in this glass case, are bath salts.
"Right on the case, it said, 'Not for human consumption.'"
Emerson met at the Cape Girardeau County Sheriff's Department with dozens of state and local law-enforcement personnel Monday to find out how pervasive bath salts are in their communities.
Bath salts are synthetic drugs created in labs. The formulas used to create the drugs are constantly changing, and they are made from legal substances, making it difficult for lawmakers to regulate bath salt manufacture or use. As laws are made to prevent the creation of bath salts, the chemicals used in their manufacture is changed to skirt the new laws.
"In the war on drugs, you fight a battle front here, and another front comes up," Cape Girardeau County Sheriff John Jordan said. "We managed to cut back on the number of methamphetamine labs. Now we've got another battle on our hands with these bath salts. We're starting to see it."
Funding for programs intended to combat methamphetamine use "dried up," Jordan said.
Southeast Missouri Drug Task Force director Sgt. Mark McClendon, said the budget for his organization was cut by $150,000. The budget in July 2011 was only $223,000.
Cuts meant the task force lost two deputies. Another member was cut to half time. The organization lost money for overtime pay and leases on vehicles, McClendon said.
The Missouri State Highway Patrol crime labs face challenges too, said Troop E crime lab supervisor Pam Johnson. The Troop E crime lab, which has only two drug chemists, has a six-month backlog of evidence to analyze for more than 800 cases, Johnson said. It recently sent evidence for 200 cases to Springfield, Mo., for analysis, she said. Springfield has five chemists, Johnson said.
The challenges don't stop there, said undercover narcotics officers who wished to remain anonymous.
In a recent trend, senior citizens struggling to make ends meet have begun selling their prescription medications to drug dealers, officers said.
Investigators also said they have seen a rise in heroin use in Southeast Missouri.
Meanwhile, lawmakers continue to try to slow the use of bath salts, Emerson said.
"We need a new approach," Emerson said. "There are drafts of legislation in both the House and the Senate. I don't believe it is as comprehensive as it needs to be."
216 N. Missouri St., Jackson, Mo.