Oct. 1, 2012 -- Los Angeles police are investigating whether the alleged murder-suicide by "Sons of Anarchy" star Johnny Lewis last week is linked to "Smiles," the newest designer street drug gaining popularity in the U.S.
According to the LAPD, the Los Angeles area has seen a rise in the number of overdoses caused by Smiles, or 2C-I, a hallucinogenic synthetic drug. They said that Lewis' behavior, in which he is suspected of attacking and killing his elderly landlady before jumping or falling of a balcony to his death, was consistent with the drug.
"The thing we are seeing lately here in Los Angeles and across the country are synthetic designer-type drugs, something like 'bath salts,' or the new one we've heard around here called 'smiles,'" LAPD Cmd. Andrew Smith told ABC News.
The drug may be part of a growing trend of drugs created by tweaking chemical formulas to constantly introduce new drugs to the market, according to experts. Just as synthetic marijuana, known as K2 or Spice, and Bath Salts became popular for brief periods of time over the past years, Smiles may be the latest man-made drug to be hitting the club scene, according to Dessa Bergen-Cico, professor of public health at Syracuse University.
"Basically it's a very pure and potent form of ecstasy or MDMA," Bergen-Cico said. "So it's not necessarily a new drug, but a more potent form of it."
Smiles, as it is known commonly, is sold in powder, pill or liquid form and marketed as a drug with LSD or ecstasy-like effects, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. It is classified as a schedule-I controlled substance.
"Smiles is desirable because at least initially, it was 'legal,'" said Dr. Constance Scharff, who does addiction research at the Cliffside Malibu Treatment Center in California. "Where (smiles and bath salts) are similar is that each has caused a tremendous number of calls to the Poison Control Center because of adverse reactions and overdoses."
According to Rusty Payne, spokesman for the DEA, smiles can cause hallucinations, anxiety, panic attacks and seizures.
"It has a psychedelic effect so it can be associated with visual hallucinations, distortions. It's not the same as LSD, but like with peyote, mescaline, and LSD, where there's a potential for hallucination with visual effects, depending on the mental state of the person, they could have a pretty horrific trip," Bergen-Cico said.
Like bath salts, a drug that gained notoriety over the summer and led to violent attacks by users across the country, smiles is a purely synthetic drug manufactured in chemical labs, Bergen-Cico said.
"(Lewis') behavior sounds a little bit more like bath salts, or embalming fluid, or PCP, as a very heavy kind of stimulant, with an amphetamine kind of effect," Bergen-Cico said, noting that she was not familiar with Lewis' case specifically.
The spread of smile's popularity has been slow, and limited to areas that are close to a manufacturer or distribution line, Bergen-Cico explained. Smiles is often imported from Mexico or China, where the chemicals to make it are more easily obtained, and then trafficked through the U.S. along the same routes as other, more popular drugs, including marijuana and cocaine, she said.
Smiles has not hit critical mass yet, she noted. From 2006 to 2010, there were fewer than 2,000 cases of 2C-I use reported to the forensic labs, according to DEA figures. In a DEA report on 2C drug use, many states with international borders saw the highest rates of use, including Texas, Michigan, and Washington, along with Florida.
Smiles Is the Latest in New Man Made Drugs
The DEA has had to move quickly to keep up with the evolving combinations of chemicals that are forming new drugs. Earlier this year, Congress moved to ban all forms of the 2C drug family, including 2C-I. The bill, passed in June, also banned synthetic marijuana, bath salts, and other chemically-engineered drugs.
But the rise of synthetic drugs may only be just beginning, Bergen-Cico warned. As smiles users have begun posting videos of themselves while high on the drug to YouTube and writing reviews of the drug's effects on internet message boards, interest around the country has piqued.
"I can guarantee we're only just beginning to see this deluge of new designer drugs, where there's something going to be coming out every couple months. It's a money making business. As soon as it's saturated or uncool or they get busted, they're going to find new things to develop," she said.
The U.S., in response to the new market for designer drugs, must take steps to both ban them and help users make safe decisions, she said.
"We need to find ways to reduce risk and demand, to let users find safe easy access to information, and to let them know that if they are concerned that someone is overdosing, being able to let them know what their medical amnesty options are."