Synthetic marijuana cited in three area deaths in eight days

Synthetic marijuana

Known on the street at K-2, spice, fake, fake bake, woo, Kush and a variety of other names, synthetic marijuana continues to plague Southeast Texas. Law enforcement officers believe the chemical compounds contained within the dangerous products, used by manufacturers to mimic the high produced by marijuana, are responsible for three recent deaths in the area.

The first victim died on New Year’s Eve. Friends of 25-year-old Daniel Thomas of Jasper reportedly found the young man deceased in his yard the evening of Dec. 31, 2016.

On Jan. 2, family of 24-year-old Bruce Turner found him deceased in his yard. Police say his “drug of choice” was known to be synthetic marijuana.

Both cases are still under investigation, but “it is a possibility that both subjects could have ingested some synthetic marijuana,” stated the department in a news release. They are urging “anyone who may use synthetic marijuana to please refrain from doing so in fear that there may be some circulating that is highly toxic.”

Jan. 8, tragedy struck in Newton County when another man was discovered unresponsive in the Shankleville area on FM 1415.

According to a news release from the Newton County Sheriff’s Office, Burkeville first responders were already on-scene administering CPR to the victim and an ambulance was en route when deputies arrived. Witnesses told a deputy the unconscious male, identified as 31-year-old Cobra Lewis of Shankleville, had been smoking K-2 earlier in the day.

Newton County Sheriff Billy Rowles said witnesses told investigators Lewis was walking across the road to fill up a gas can when he suddenly collapsed in the roadway.

“It happened in a matter of 10 to 15 minutes,” after Lewis had smoked the synthetic marijuana, said Rowles. “He walks out in the middle of the road and crashes down.”

Lewis was transported to a Jasper hospital, but it was too late. He was already dead.

Detective GW Foster of the Jasper Police Department said preliminary autopsies on the two victims in Jasper show no signs of trauma, and he wants to warn people about the possibility of a “highly toxic” batch circulating around the area to “err on the side of caution.” Police are still awaiting toxicology results.

“These were two healthy, young males,” said Foster. “They had no medical problems. It appears they smoked that and they were out of there.”

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), synthetic cannabinoids, often referred to as synthetic marijuana, are sometimes sold as potpourri or herbal incense and are marketed as safe, legal alternatives to marijuana. “In fact,” warns NIDA, “they may affect the brain much more powerfully; their actual effects can be unpredictable and, in some cases, severe or even life-threatening.”

Foster said some drug dealers are adding chemicals to the synthetic concoctions to make the products more potent. Instead, he said, they are making the already dangerous drugs even more deadly.

“A lot of them are just spraying the chemicals on the stuff in their garages,” said Foster. “And people are dying.”

Sheriff Rowles said he has heard of people buying the synthetic marijuana at convenience stores then, at the same store, buying a separate bottle of K-2 spray and spritzing it onto the already chemical-laden spice, increasing the potency — and the risk of overdose.

Following the deaths of the three men in Southeast Texas, acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Texas Brit Featherston held a press conference Jan. 11 to alert the public about potentially fatal fake marijuana circulating in the area.

“We’re here to sound the alarm,” said Featherston, surrounded by local law enforcement and DEA agents. “There have been three deaths in the last eight days. … This stuff will kill you. Tell your friends. Tell your neighbors. …There’s a bad batch (of synthetic marijuana) out there. … We don’t want anyone else to end up dead over this crap.”

Sherod Jones is the associate special agent in charge for the DEA Houston Division. He joined Featherston at the press conference and warned that there are a lot of myths surrounding the synthetic substance, including that users can pass drug tests for their jobs.

“That is a myth,” said Jones, adding that new drug tests more effectively identify substances used in synthetic marijuana. “Another myth is that it is stronger, cheaper and gives the same effect as marijuana. That is a myth. These myths are being conveyed electronically (on social media, etc.).”

He said dangerous synthetic marijuana is still often disguised as potpourri and also marketed to children, with names like The Incredible Hulk, The Joker and other comic book or cartoon characters. He said don’t be fooled by the pretty packaging; the drug can cause some ugly reactions.

Besides death, users of synthetic marijuana could experience anxiety, paranoia, nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath, renal failure and other side effects. Often, Jones reports, users start taking off their clothes and wandering aimlessly.

Port Arthur Police Department Chief Patrick Melvin said that while there is a batch of highly toxic synthetic marijuana being dispersed throughout the area, “There’s no such thing as a good batch. If you see something, say something.”