When police in Kannapolis raided a store believed to be selling synthetic marijuana, they hoped to send a message that they are cracking down on the buyers and sellers of so-called designer drugs.
But court records Eyewitness News reviewed suggest that police and deputies in North Carolina have been fighting a losing battle against those drugs since the Legislature first tried to take them off the shelves two years ago.
The law banning those drugs went into effect in June 2011. That year 205 misdemeanor charges were filed statewide that resulted in only 17 convictions.
For felonies, the records were even more revealing: 208 charges and zero convictions.
The trend continued in 2012: 409 misdemeanor charges and only 48 convictions and 394 felony charges with only eight convictions.
"That's a serious problem," said Rep. Craig Horn, a local lawmaker who led the fight two years ago to ban those synthetic drugs.
"We've been asking for two years now, since we passed the first bill in 2011, why aren't we getting more prosecutions? Why are these things still on the shelves in smoke shops and head shops?" Horn asked.
It's a question prosecutors have confronted since they saw their first designer drug cases come to court.
"One of the biggest challenges in prosecuting these cases is to find out if what we have is even illegal," said Sheena Gatehouse, who leads the team that prosecutes drug cases in Mecklenburg County.
Gatehouse said that challenge starts in the crime lab, where chemical analysts often find that manufacturers of those bath salts and other designer drugs have changed one component of the compound that's at the core of those drugs -- enough to make them barely legal.
"It's a moving target -- the chemists always seem to be a step or three ahead of us," Gatehouse added.
But some defense attorneys have a different view of the numbers.
"It's actually surprising to me that we have had any convictions (since) 2011," said Brad Smith, who has represented shop owners charged with selling designer drugs.
Smith said shop owners can argue that they didn't know the products were illegal because the packaging clearly says “Not for human consumption,” and the manufacturers promise that they're not illegal.
"In fact, they're usually giving sophisticated lab reports to these vendors and telling them that, ‘Look, if you don't trust us, here's our lab reports that say these products do not contain any illegal controlled substances at all. But, by the way, they're going to fly off your shelves,’" Smith said.
Horn and the Legislature are trying again. They just passed another bill addressing synthetic drugs, but getting it to work in North Carolina is one thing. The real test will come in the courtroom.
"We believe that that is the bill that captures the broad issue," Horn said.