Ramsey County authorities say they busted the first synthetic drug lab in the county, and possibly the state, when they confiscated thousands of dollars' worth of drugs from a St. Paul couple Thursday.

The suspects were taking prescription drugs and turning them into "club drugs," using ether, paint thinner and grain alcohol to alter them, according to the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office.

"It was fairly major, fairly sophisticated," said sheriff's spokesman Randy Gustafson.

The Ramsey County Violent Crime Enforcement Team (VCET) searched the couple's apartment in the 100 block of Douglas Street, southwest of downtown. A 32-year-old man and 23-year-old woman were arrested, and a 4-year-old girl living with them was examined at a hospital and placed with protective services.

Authorities would not cite specific numbers, but said several pounds of drugs were recovered. The drugs, found in capsule and powder form, were sent to the state's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) for testing. Pending test results, authorities declined to identify which prescription drugs were found or the street names of the drugs produced.

VCET Commander Rich Clark said the "club drugs" included hallucinogenics and depressants.

Although drugs such as LSD and methamphetamine also are synthetic, the term recently has been co-opted to identify a new generation of less-understood drugs that are created by altering the chemical compounds of prescription drugs.

"They're creating a whole new drug," Clark said. "Nobody knows what they're putting into their bodies."

The suspects were allegedly stripping the starches and buffers out of prescription drugs that make them palatable for consumption, and creating a more purified drug that provides a faster, more intense high, said Gustafson and Clark. Sometimes, drugs are combined in the process.

Workers and business owners at storefronts near the apartment were shocked to learn of the drug bust. Part of Sophie Joe's Emporium, an antiques and home decor store, is directly underneath the apartment.

"It's pretty scary, and we had no idea," said Susan Mason, a Sophie Joe's employee. "We know that meth is bad. We don't know about this."

Officers wore protective gear and gowns during the search and cleanup. Among the items confiscated was a college chemistry textbook.

The manufacture of synthetic drugs can create conditions that are as dangerous as meth labs, authorities said. The couple had fans to air out the toxic fumes.

"There's an explosion risk because you're working with flammables," Clark said. "You can cause an overdose just from inhaling some of the chemicals."

The suspects had items shipped to their apartment, including orders from China. Clark said there's no evidence to suggest that they obtained prescription drugs through pharmacy robberies, which have occurred in recent months across the metro area.

Charges have not been filed, and Clark said the case probably won't be forwarded to the county attorney's office until the BCA tests are complete.

It's unclear how many synthetic drug labs are operating in Minnesota, but police and drug treatment experts say the one in St. Paul can't be the last.

"We see kids using synthetic drugs all of the time," said Dr. Joseph Lee, medical director of the Youth Continuum at Hazelden treatment center. "They're getting it somewhere. This can't be the only lab in the state of this nature."

The VCET comprises police officers from St. Paul, Roseville, Maplewood and White Bear Lake as well as Ramsey County deputies. It coordinates its operations with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Staff writer Paul Walsh contributed to this report.

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib