LINCOLN — Tyler Smith was a bright, popular student at Bellevue West High School who liked his part-time job and loved to skateboard with friends.
But when his mother saw him one day last September, he had changed completely. The 18-year-old was listless and uncommunicative.
“He didn't have an interest all of a sudden in anything,” Kali Smith said. “Even his posture became different, hunched over.”
The family suspected drug use, but tests revealed nothing. Doctors and counselors had no explanation.
A couple of months short of winter graduation and only weeks after the dramatic change in his behavior, Tyler killed himself.
In his pocket was a packet of a cherry-flavored, synthetic marijuana called “incense” that was legally purchased at a now closed head shop in Bellevue. Two other packets were found in his car. A pipe with residue of the substance was also discovered.
Action has emerged out of the family's grief.
Smith, her husband and her two sons have launched an effort called the “Tyler J. Smith Purple Project” to educate young people about the dangers of such “designer drugs.”
The family also is advocating a bill in the Legislature to outlaw new generations of the substances. State lawmakers are expected to resume debate on Legislative Bill 298 in the coming days.
“I can't live with myself knowing that I know this and that I can prevent someone else from having this pain,” Kali Smith said.
She said she learned after her son died that he had been assured by classmates that the “incense” was safe and great for relieving stress.
Even though such products are billed as duplicating the effects of marijuana without showing up on a drug test, an official of the Nebraska Regional Poison Center said products like K2, “Spice” and “incense” are much more dangerous.
Joan McVoy, a public education nurse at the center, said they can cause agitation, anxiety, nausea and vomiting, intense hallucinations, and suicidal thoughts and actions.
Kali Smith said she believes her son had no idea what he was dealing with.
“Being legal, you're under the impression it isn't harmful,” she said. “It looks like tobacco.”
The bill, which is being called “Tyler's Law,” would outlaw possession of the new generation of synthetic drugs used by Tyler Smith, along with two new classes of dangerous substances sold under names like “Blue Mystic,” “Smiles” and “Foxy.”
LB 298 would update laws passed during the past two years that outlawed some classes of synthetic drugs, such as K2, as well as another group of designer drugs sold as bath salts and labeled “not for human consumption.”
Since then, illicit drug labs, mostly in Asia and India, have produced new and more dangerous compounds to get around those bans. That has caused problems for the 41 states, including Iowa, that have passed laws to ban synthetic pot prior to 2013.
State Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha, who introduced LB 298, said it's time to update state statutes in Nebraska.
“I'm bound and determined to do everything we can so we don't have another tragic Tyler Smith story,” he said.
Other senators, though, questioned the reach and effectiveness of such bans during debate last week.
“Does it decrease use?” asked Sen. John Murante of Omaha, who also raised questions about the cost of creating more crimes and imprisoning more people.
Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus said there may be legitimate uses for some of the chemicals that would be banned under LB 298. He noted that people have been known to use common substances, such as paint or gasoline, in an attempt to get high.
McCoy said the past state laws have reduced the availability of designer drugs. And the poison center says that “exposures” to synthetic marijuana reported to it from Nebraska fell by half in the past two years, from 22 in 2011 to 11 in 2012. Nationally, exposures peaked at 6,968 in 2011, then dropped to 5,202 last year.
The drop came after a federal ban was introduced in March 2011 by U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. The ban, which was signed into law a year ago, was inspired by the suicide of an Indianola, Iowa, teen who took K2.
In Nebraska, McCoy said law enforcement officials tell him that the new, legal versions of synthetic pot can still be found at head shops and some tobacco stores.
Christine Gabig, a forensic scientist with the Douglas County Sheriff's Office, said such products sell for $35 to $50 per 4-ounce packet.
She said that because such products can be legally purchased, prepackaged off the shelf of a store, buyers may have the impression that they are safe, when they can be deadly.
Two teens died in North Dakota last year of an apparent overdose of a synthetic hallucinogen called “Smiles.”
The same substance was connected with the violent death last year of “Sons of Anarchy” actor Johnny Lewis, who fell off a roof to his death after allegedly killing his landlord.
Similar problems led to the bans on K2 and bath salts in Nebraska. Drug tests showed that a 17-year-old Millard South student used K2 before he fatally shot an assistant principal and wounded the high school's principal in 2011.
Kali Smith said that, in the wake of her son's death, his friends have told her that the drugs “are passed around” at school.
During the current school year, three students at Bellevue West have been taken to hospitals with seizure symptoms after using synthetic drugs, according to school officials.
Amanda Oliver, a spokeswoman for the school district, said the school has responded by talking about the dangers of the substance in classrooms and holding individual meetings with parents and any student suspected of using the legal-but-dangerous products. School officials also are considering informational meetings for parents.
“We want to be ahead of this as best as we can,” Oliver said.
Kali Smith said her son had suffered from some anxiety and teenage-type stress. He also suffered from a seizure disorder and might have been attracted by the claim that the “incense” would calm him, his mother said.
A Facebook page has been launched for the Tyler J. Smith Purple Project — named after his favorite color. Tyler's older brothers, Mike and Tony, recently gave a presentation on the dangers of synthetic marijuana to health classes at Bellevue West. More presentations are planned this fall.
The goal is to educate students about the warning signs of using such synthetic drugs, which include withdrawal, lack of motivation and energy, red eyes and complaints about headaches and upset stomach.
Both Kali Smith and Sen. McCoy said such educational efforts can be successful. Smith said one of her son's friends has given up synthetic drugs.
And McCoy said a Sidney, Neb., teen who drove wildly through a school zone while high on K2 now gives talks about avoiding such substances and will graduate this month from high school.
“Banning these drugs does have an impact,” the senator said.
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