In the old days, back in the previous century, kids used to sneak off and smoke corn silk or grape vine.

In today’s modern and progressive society, kids (and adults) are smoking, snorting and injecting “designer drugs,” chemicals that mimic and magnify the effects of marijuana, cocaine and LSD.

That magnification by the designer or synthetic drugs makes them even more dangerous.

A panel of speakers told about those dangers Tuesday night at the Rolla Technical Center in a forum held under the direction of the Phelps County Child Advocacy Network.

“One time is all it will take to be on painful dialysis the rest of your life,” said panelist Cindy Butler, director of critical care at Phelps County Regional Medical Center.

Butler described how one young man bought $75 in synthetic drugs off the Internet, took them and suffered brain damage and kidney failure. He goes three times a week to dialysis for about six hours at a time.

“He can’t be a productive citizen like he wanted to be,” Butler said of the young man.

Others on the panel were Michael Sass, a former user of synthetic drugs; Luke Kearse, a Rolla police officer on the Street Crimes Unit; Paul Lambert, a Phelps County deputy sheriff; Jamie Myers, executive director of Prevention Consultants.

Moderator was Dr. Phil Cox, pastoral care director at PCRMC.

Keynote speaker Jeff Tucker, director of occupational medicine and outpatient therapy services for Mercy Health System in Springfield, told how designer/synthetic drugs can snuff out lives.

“I lost my best friend,” Tucker said. That friend was his son, 19-year-old Joshua, who died last May after smoking what he thought was a marijuana cigarette. It may have been, but it was likely enhanced with a designer drug.

Tucker told of the accomplishments of his son, a college student who loved sports, debate and Apple computers. He had been a successful high school student who caused no trouble; on the contrary, he was thought so highly of by teachers and school officials that Tucker recounted receiving phone calls from those officials telling him of good works done by Joshua.

The young man also was active in the family’s church and lived his faith by going on mission trips, even to foreign lands, to help make life better for people. He had a goal of going to law school and serving as a U.S. Navy lawyer.

But, Tucker said, “Joshua made a wrong choice.”

It occurred on an evening in May when Joshua went out with some friends. Later that night, two policemen came to the home to tell Tucker and his wife that their son had been killed in a car-pedestrian accident. Joshua was lying on Highway 65 in Springfield and was struck by a car.

“That’s a night I’ll never forget,” Tucker said. “My life was totally broken at that moment.”

Tucker had no idea why his son was on the highway rather than in his car. Eventually, one of the young man’s friends called and asked to speak to Tucker. They met and Tucker learned the story of that night.

Apparently, another friend who went to college in St. Louis brought home something that was believed to be marijuana. They smoked it. Joshua, who had never smoked marijuana before, inhaled heavily.

He suddenly jumped off the hood of the car on which they had been sitting, stood in place and acted like he was brushing something off his arms. He ran across the street, apparently mesmerized by the lights of a shopping center parking lot, where he danced and then stared at the lights.

The friends brought Joshua back over to the car, but he struggled away, ran off down a hill and onto Highway 65.

“Josh lost his life, he lost his dreams, he shattered his family and friends,” Tucker said.

The friend who had been with Josh told Tucker that as he smoked the substance, the lights became more vivid, but he became sick and dizzy and began walking home. He passed out and woke up six or seven hours later in a field.

“That was not marijuana. I don’t know what it was,” Tucker quoted the young man as saying.

Tucker said he told the police what the young friend told him. Drug tests on Joshua came back negative, but Tucker learned that the tests only screened for five designer drugs. At the time there were nearly 150 such drugs.

Tucker said he is certain that “Joshua got hold of a synthetic drug, and it made him psychotic and out of control. He was attracted to the bright lights in the parking lot and on the cars on the highway.”

Acknowledging that a year ago he was ignorant of designer drugs, Tucker said he never talked to Joshua about them because he didn’t know about them.

“If you have a child, grandchild, a niece or a nephew, have that conversation with them,” Tucker told the audience. “I learned on the back side (of this incident),” he continued. “My prayer is more and more people will learn on the front side” and take action with their families.

Speaking matter-of-factly, Tucker said, “We’re not going to stop people from making it. They’re going to keep making it. Education is what’s so critical.”

Butler said she has seen many cases in the emergency room of psychotic behavior caused by designer drug use. It causes extreme violence, confusion and paranoia is many people. It can also cause seizures, high blood pressure and other problems, as well as kidney failure, brain damage and heart failure.

Sass said his use of synthetic drugs has changed his life.

“This stuff really messed me up,” he said.

He has emphysema and must take medicine daily to keep from having “psychotic outbursts.”

“It affected my whole family. A lot of people still don’t want to be around me,” he said. “If you know anyone using this stuff, stop them.”

Officer Kearse briefly told the history of RPD’s crusade against the synthetic drugs, which had been sold openly in many stores. Working with the drug task force and the county prosecutor, the police now arrest people on charges of possession of a controlled substance and ask them to fill out a statement of where they bought the stuff and why.

The drugs are sold as bath salts, fertilizer and watch cleaner, but their real purpose is to cause a high, he said.

Myers, a long-time counselor in the area, told parents that if they find their children are using the substances, the first thing to do is not panic. He said parents should be direct and factual with their children, share their concerns and their fears about the use of the substances.

He encouraged parents to treat it at first as a misbehavior and to listen to the children’s explanation. He said parents who find their children using these substances should talk to the parents of their children’s friends to warn them.

“Increase your monitoring of your kids’ behavior,” he said. “If it continues, get professional help from a doctor, a school counselor or a treatment provider.”

The public forum was made possible through funding provided to PCCAN by the Missouri Department of Mental Health, Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse with additional funding provided by the Phelps County Anti-Drug Committee.