Agonized parents make a plea: Beware the dangers of synthetic drugs

Story highlights

  • Synthetic drugs have exploded in popularity among teens
  • Parents share memories of children and warnings for other parents
  • Some teens died after taking drugs for the first time
  • Parents must educate their children about the dangers of these drugs, they say
Across the country and around the world, synthetic drugs are tearing holes in families.
These "designer drugs" such as spice, K2 and bath salts are easy to get and difficult to regulate. Many are made in laboratories overseas and shipped to the United States with labels noting that they are "not for human consumption."
These labels, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, hide the real purpose of the drugs and evade oversight by the FDA.
Synthetic drugs first appeared in the United States around 2009 and have since exploded in popularity, especially among teens.
CNN's investigative documentary, "Deadly High: How Synthetic Drugs are Killing Kids," tells the story of Christian Bjerk and Elijah Stai, two teens who died within days of each other after taking synthetic drugs that came from the same source.
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Other parents who lost their sons to synthetic drugs shared their stories with CNN. Here, in their own words, is what they want you to know about their child and about synthetic drugs. These interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity.
David Burnett, father of Chase Burnett
"Chase was a magnet for everyone he came across from a toddler to high school. His nonjudgmental personality coupled with positive outlook drew everyone to him throughout his entire life. He had a sparkle in his eyes that drew even strangers to his friendship.
"Chase had an impact on most everyone who came to know and love him and even continues today to touch lives both physically and spiritually. He would have made a huge difference in the world both as a father, husband and positive contributor to society! While he is sorely missed by many, Chase's legacy and positive impact lives on. His family and tons of friends understand what a difference he was in life and his spirit lives forever.
"These synthetic drugs or 'poisons' are chemicals that are not regulated by anyone and will kill or negatively affect your body and/or brain. There is nothing natural in these poisonous substances made by men and drug dealers."
Karen Dobner, mother of Max Dobner
"There are few things that have been a greater threat to the mental health and well-being of our young people than synthetic drugs. Actually, the U.N. characterizes synthetic drugs as a threat to the 'health and welfare of mankind.' I talk to victims regularly, and it's heartbreaking to hear the horror stories and the pain and suffering that results from the use of these poisons.
"People need to understand that using synthetic drugs is like playing Russian roulette and the consequences could be deadly. Brand new chemicals are constantly being synthesized and entering the market. These chemicals have never been seen on Earth before. So, basically our young people are acting as lab rats, and the experiment isn't going well, at all.
"Unfortunately, I'm living through the nightmare of losing my son, Max, to Spice/K2 after his first-time use. There are no words to describe the pain that I am living through.
"So, talk to your kids, grandkids, nieces and nephews. It may save their lives and save you from a fate worse then death.
"I'd rather have died than lost my Max."
Lance Dyer, father of Dakota Dyer
"Dakota was 14 when he passed away from the effects of a one-time use of synthetic marijuana. He was your typical middle class, suburban teenage boy. He enjoyed the outdoors, animals, Xbox games and football.
He was 6' 3" and the starting defensive end on the Bremen Blue Devils, an A-B Student, and was the love and joy of his mother and father. He had just recently received the Presidential Community Service Award for his actions in cleaning up a polluted creek and reintroducing frogs and salamanders back into it.
"As with any young man, he was coming into his own. Dakota was a whiz at computers and technology, and had a knack for always being the one who took up for anyone who was being bullied or picked on. He had a multitude of friends whom he adored and adored him. Dakota had never not once in his life ever tried a drug or narcotic.
"He made a series of mistakes over a 36-hour period that resulted in him trying a very small amount of what was called at the time "The New Legal Weed."
It was a bag of Mr. Miyagi Time Out -- a type of synthetic marijuana. He tried smoking this on a Saturday morning around 11 a.m. The effects of this sent him into what was referred to as a psychotic break. During this episode, he took a hand gun and ended his life with a self-inflicted gun shot wound to the head.
"Dakota's actions on that morning were in complete contradiction of his nature and how he lived his life. His mother and I can only imagine the war he was fighting inside himself due to the effects of this synthetic drug that would cause him to seek such a permanent, devastating solution.
"Since Dakota's passing, we have formed the Dakota Dyer Foundation, with the sole intent to help educate our young adults about the physical and mental dangers of synthetic drugs and assist law enforcement in tracking down and exposing synthetic drug manufacturers and distributors.
"We also help provide tools and detection equipment to schools and law enforcement agencies to assist in identifying synthetic drugs, such as Tru-Narcs, K2-D2 urine test kits and just recently the first synthetic marijuana detecting K-9 in the country was donated by the Dakota Dyer Foundation to the Douglas County Sheriff's Department in Georgia. His name is K-9 Officer Dakota, and his badge number is 88, Dakota's football number.
"Our message to parents is be proactive in your child's life, when it comes to synthetic drugs, educate yourself then your child about the deadly effects of these poisons. It only takes one time, one mistake, one uninformed decision, one bad teenage experiment to end your child's life. Become informed and aware, monitor your children's Internet access, text messaging, Snapchats and Instagrams. Do not think for one second "not my child" or "my child would never do that."
"We had no idea what synthetic drugs were at the time of Dakota's passing, and he had no idea of their effects. You have the opportunity to educate yourselves. We beg of you, as one set of parents to another, do not waste the chance you have.
"We would do anything to have had the opportunity to educate our son on these synthetic poisons instead of picking out a casket, mourning his loss and looking at all the empty spaces he should be occupying. Do not be a parent who has to look at those empty spaces."
Veronica and Devin Eckhardt, parents of Connor Eckhardt
"If we knew that we would only be given 19 years with our son, we would still say yes. Connor's life and laughter would always command and brighten a room. There was no stranger to Connor, and he left a mark everywhere he went. He loved deeply and felt deeply. He lived a life of all in. He loved God, his family and his friends.
"When Connor was put in our arms in the hospital, we knew this boy would do great things. We used to tell him that he and his life story would touch hundreds, maybe thousands or millions of people. We did not know this would happen through his death.
"Connor died after taking one hit of the toxic, synthetic drug sometimes known as 'spice.' Shortly after ingesting this deceptively harmless looking drug, he fell into a coma, and two days later was declared brain dead. We had never heard of 'spice' or the dangerous synthetic drugs like it before. But through the outpouring of love from around the world, we realized we were not the only ones devastated by this deadly drug. Within a week of Connor's death, strangers from around the globe were asking us for help. Something needed to be done.
"That is how we founded The Connor Project and the effort to stop synthetic drugs. The Connor Project not only honors Connor's name, it offers the opportunity to raise awareness about the widespread availability of deadly, chemically laced synthetic drugs, and work to change policy so that not one more family has to suffer the loss of a loved one in the way we lost our son. We won't stop until it is done.
"Connor's light could not be extinguished in death and still lives on. He will make a difference."
Kali Smith, mother of Tyler Smith
"My son, Tyler, went to school for his senior year and was provided cherry flavored incense purchased one block from his high school. He smoked it in the bathroom, while Tyler believed it to be flavored tobacco, not knowing it was synthetic marijuana. He became extremely ill and after taking him to the doctors, testing him for drugs and other illnesses, four days later he was gone.
"Police found a small pipe and a few packages of the cherry flavored incense in his pocket and car, Tyler had come home from work, even though he was sick, changed his clothes and took his own life. I then started the Tyler J. Smith Purple Project to raise awareness and spread hope and prevention. We passed two laws in Nebraska to outlaw some types of synthetic drugs. I have met with several lawmakers and am pushing to change the age limit from 18 to 21 for purchasing specialty novelties, from head shops.
"We are forever changed after the loss of Tyler, and we will never be the same. Tyler was an amazing young man, never judged anyone and loved with a compassion for others that was admirable. He was my youngest of three boys, and my best friend."
Teresa Woolson, mother of Victor Woolson
"Victor Orlando Woolson was a funny, smart, compassionate young man who blessed this Earth for 19 years and 21 days. He graduated from high school with an advanced regents diploma, spent four years in the U.S. Marine Corps Junior ROTC program, received a leadership certification and had many friends and family who looked up to him. Victor's career choice was in criminal justice, and he was an exemplary student, son, brother, uncle, nephew, cousin, friend and community member.
"I would like parents to know that synthetic drugs are very, very dangerous poisonous chemicals being marketed to young people. Legal products in stores can be deadly, a fact my son could not understand.
"Regular discussions on the volatile nature of products and marketing techniques may help save lives. Be informed and stay informed as these deadly products continue to flood our nation in many different forms and packages."