Synthetic marijuana not a safe high
Health issues and deaths involving the use of synthetic marijuana have made national headlines in recent months, and local law enforcement say the dangerous drug is still creating crime and causing problems in Southeast Texas in spite of state legislation and measures taken by cities to eliminate its distribution.
What is synthetic marijuana?
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), synthetic marijuana, often sold as potpourri or “herbal incense,” refers to a wide variety of herbal mixtures that produce experiences similar to marijuana (cannabis) and are marketed as safe, legal alternatives. Sold under many names, including K2, Yucatan Fire, Skunk, Moon Rocks, Spice, Angry Birds and others — and labeled “not for human consumption” — these products contain “dried, shredded plant material and chemical additives that are responsible for their psychoactive (mind-altering) effects.”
But what other effects is the drug having on users?
Health concerns related to use
An undercover BPD officer said one strange effect the drug has is commonly referred to as “getting stuck.” He said to consider every bag of synthetic marijuana as different, even when the packaging is identical, and warned that the substance used to spray the herbs that become spice contain hallucinogenic chemicals that affect each user differently. He compared the hallucinogenic chemicals to LSD and said some users “get stuck” in a kind of psychoactive loop that prevents them from coming out of the hallucination back into reality, a frightening prospect.
Researchers from the Department of Neurology at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Fla., released findings in November 2013 in the journal Neurology pertaining to the relationship between synthetic marijuana, stroke and heart problems. The journal’s website at neurology.org summarizes the neurologists’ conclusions.
“We found that our two patients who smoked the street drug spice had a temporal association with symptoms of acute cerebral infarction (an ischemic stroke). This association may be confounded by contaminants in the product or by an unknown genetic mechanism. The imaging of both patients suggests an embolic etiology, which is consistent with reports of serious adverse cardiac events with spice use, including tachyarrhythmias and myocardial infarctions.”
And they are not the only ones who have discovered and are reporting health problems associated with the use of synthetic marijuana. From seizures and strokes to heart attacks and death, the negative effects of synthetic marijuana vary and are still being discovered as researchers learn more and as the chemical compounds used in the drug change to defeat designations within state legislation. Numerous reports from institutions such as the University of Colorado School of Medicine, warnings from organizations like the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) and other researchers all agree: Synthetic marijuana not only potentially causes serious long-term health problems for users, but it can also kill them.
In the news
More and more headlines at news organizations across the country have highlighted the numerous and varying health hazards associated with synthetic marijuana use. Even High Times magazine, a magazine well-known for its support of marijuana legalization and use, recently reported on health issues associated with the use of synthetic marijuana. Media outlets including CNN, the New York Daily News and Katie Couric’s talk show “Katie” have all reported on Cypress, Texas, teen Emily Bauer’s dramatic health trauma and subsequent recovery process related to smoking synthetic marijuana. Bauer was 16 when she and some friends purchased synthetic marijuana from a local gas station. After smoking the drug several times over the course of four to five weeks, on Dec. 7, 2012, Bauer had multiple strokes, and doctors ultimately had to remove a piece of her brain. She almost died and has not recovered the use of her legs and remains partially blind. Doctors said it was due to her use of synthetic marijuana, which had been sold to her legally under the guise of potpourri. Photos and updates of Bauer’s recovery process and information regarding synthetic marijuana can be viewed on the “SAFE” (Synthetic Awareness for Emily) Facebook page or safe4emily.org.
In 2011, according to an article in the Huffington Post, 19-year-old Colorado resident Nicholas Colbert died as a result of smoking a synthetic marijuana called “Mr. Smiley” he purchased at a Colorado Springs convenience store. His mother, Stephane Colbert, filed a wrongful death lawsuit in September 2013 against the convenience store that sold her son the deadly drug, a suit that, according to reporter Andrea Rael, “is meant to halt the sale of synthetic marijuana in stores.”
State legislation passed against certain chemical compounds sprayed onto herbal blends to produce synthetic marijuana for distribution, legislation meant to halt the spread of the drug, had some effect on production and distribution, but the effect was limited, law enforcement officers say, because the banned chemical compounds were very specific. Manufacturers of the chemical sprays only had to slightly alter the chemical compound in order to bypass the law. So many cities around Southeast Texas went a step further.
In 2010 and 2011, cities and municipalities in Orange County including Orange, Pinehurst, Vidor, Pine Forest and others banned the sale of spice or synthetic marijuana along with the sale of “bath salts,” which were also being sold legally and abused at the time. Since then, according to local law enforcement, although the sale of the substance in convenience stores has slowed or halted altogether, police say there is still evidence that synthetic marijuana abuse is common in Southeast Texas. The drug is still in high demand, and even people who would not smoke real marijuana are smoking synthetic marijuana to get high, police report, because it cannot be detected by some drug testing.
Captain Cliff Hargrave of the Orange Police Department says that immediately following the city ordinance outlawing the sale of synthetic marijuana and creating a kind of “blanket” ban on all types of synthetic marijuana, he saw a drop in crime related to abuse of the drug. But, he says, officers at OPD are still reporting numerous incidents.
“After the initial decrease (following the ban), I have seen no downward trend,” Hargrave asserted.
OPD reports seem to confirm Hargrave’s statement showing evidence of multiple arrests related to possession of synthetic marijuana. In January, 19-year-old Louisiana resident Scott Frith was arrested after being found with what police believed to be methamphetamine and synthetic marijuana. On Feb. 5, officers arrested 34-year-old Ronnie Toby Malbrough of Orange for possession of synthetic marijuana after reportedly observing him smoking the drug while committing an act of vandalism in Orange near Third Street and South Farragut Avenue.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Office also reports recently discovering synthetic marijuana and methamphetamine during a traffic stop in Orangefield. Deputies in Orange County arrested two men and recovered methamphetamine, synthetic marijuana and numerous pieces of drug paraphernalia after a traffic stop on FM 105 in Orangefield near Orangefield Elementary School at a little after 1 p.m. on Feb. 13, according to a news release from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office.
Chief Deputy Clint Hodgkinson reported that detectives with OCSO’s Special Services Division were patrolling the area when they observed a black Chevrolet pickup truck veer onto the shoulder of the road and then swerve back across the center dividing line on FM 105 near Grander Lane. As detectives conducted a traffic stop on the vehicle, they saw an object being thrown from a window of the truck, according to the release. Upon searching the vehicle, they reportedly discovered approximately 14 grams of methamphetamine hidden inside the truck, synthetic marijuana, two pellet pistols, and a variety of drug paraphernalia including pipes and scales.
The driver, 31-year-old Scott Patrick Shaunesey, and the passenger, 22-year-old Levi Ryan Gollihare, were both arrested for felony possession of a controlled substance in a drug-free zone. They face a higher charge with stiffer penalties due to their proximity to the elementary school (see page 12 A).
In contrast to the efforts in Orange County, the city of Beaumont did not pass any such measure. Sgt. Steve Perricone of the Beaumont Police Department said he thinks it would be better if they had. He believes a blanket ban on the substance could decrease the availability locally and could also assist law enforcement officers in fighting the dangerous drug. He said the drug is still readily available, even after state legislation, but instead of the product being sold in stores it is being distributed by drug dealers on the streets along with other illegal drugs. After the initial drop in distribution due to legislation limiting the availability in stores, Perricone said he has not seen the overall decrease of the drug’s presence that he hoped to see. In fact, he has observed just the opposite.
“Honestly, I think there has been an increase in synthetic marijuana distribution locally,” Perricone said, referring to street dealing. “It’s a huge problem right now.”
Perricone said state legislation’s strict definitions of chemical compounds used for synthetic marijuana limits the ability to prosecute distributors. He said there are approximately 245 chemical compounds specified as illegal in Texas legislation that mimic the effects of THC, or Tetrahydrocannabinol, the ingredient that gets marijuana users “high.” Often, according to him, when police find what they believe to be synthetic marijuana in large quantities, there is a “50/50” chance the herbs are untreated, possibly on their way to be sprayed with the chemicals that cause a marijuana-like high.
As for the city of Beaumont, sources close to the City Council say there could be an ordinance in the works similar to those passed in areas of Orange County creating a blanket ban on all types of synthetic marijuana throughout the city.
Lt. Ky Brown said BPD has been working with the city to create such an ordinance for quite some time, but such a measure faces challenges. One significant obstacle drafters of the city legislation would need to overcome is how to prevent potential civil liability. Lt. Brown said that if people are arrested and charged, and then lab results come back proving the substance is not a narcotic or treated with a state recognized synthetic marijuana compound, they could file a lawsuit against BPD for false arrest.
“The problem is the same with any narcotic,” Brown explained. “Suspects are arrested and booked on suspicion, but in order to actually criminally prosecute, it must be verified by a lab that it is an illegal narcotic. So, if the arrest is challenged, and it is proved that the substance is not a drug, that subjects us to civil liability.”
Brown said that does not mean the ordinance is “dead,” and it does not mean the measure would not be helpful. He said it would provide peace officers with probable cause and allow search and seizure of potential synthetic marijuana, a tool that could prove quite useful to officers in Beaumont. According to Brown, he is working with City Attorney Tyrone Cooper on appropriate language for the proposed ordinance so that it can be used as a tool while not subjecting the city to civil liability.
Brown said BPD does take measures against synthetic marijuana, but they have to be careful. In order to avoid civil liability, he said, officers who find small amounts of what could be synthetic marijuana or other drugs often confiscate the unknown substance and have it tested rather than arresting suspects on the spot. Then, after lab results come back, an arrest warrant could be obtained as mandated and the suspects arrested at that time. But any time large amounts of suspected narcotics are discovered, arrests are always made, Brown said.
For example, on Jan. 29, 2013, BPD made what was touted as the largest synthetic marijuana bust in the city’s history. The bust started with a routine traffic stop, according to police, who said they seized 117 pounds of synthetic marijuana from a sedan they stopped on Interstate 10 at about 12:30 a.m. near Walden Road.
The grassy product was found in the trunk of the stopped Volkswagen sedan with hundreds of small, colorful bags labeled “Kush” and “Kli-max” ready for individual packaging and sale. BPD Sgt. Rick Boaz said in an interview that the synthetic marijuana was on its way from Mexico to a local convenience store near you.
“One of the tags on the bag says ‘Product of Mexico,’” Boaz said in the interview following the incident. “Generally, these are store owners who’re selling it.”
Police did not release the name of the suspect pending lab results on the herbal concoction but said the punishment is the same for an equal amount of marijuana.
“If it comes back positive, you know, for that amount of marijuana, it’s a second degree felony,” said BPD spokesman, Rob Flores, just after the discovery. “So, it’s two to 20 (years).”
But it did not come back positive, and no drug charges could be pursued. Perricone said that was because the “tea leaves” or herbs found were untreated by chemicals. So, he said, even though police knew that the herbs and packaging discovered would eventually become synthetic marijuana and distributed as such, nothing could be done to prosecute the would-be distributor. And even the proposed city ordinance would not have affected the outcome in this case. Only new state legislation could make a difference.
“I hope they change legislation to make it illegal altogether,” Perricone said, who described Texas legislation as “behind the curve.”
Other states, like Colorado, have more inclusive statewide bans that mention specific compounds and derivatives that have thus far been identified as synthetic cannabinoids, but they go further than Texas. They include language in their legislation that is meant to encompass all types of synthetic cannabinoids, even if the chemical compounds are not on the list of compounds already discovered to be synthetic marijuana.
Colorado law reads, “Any chemical compound chemically synthesized and either 1) has been demonstrated to have binding activity at one or more cannabinoid receptors; or 2) is a chemical analog or isomer of a compound that has been demonstrated to have binding activity at one or more cannabinoid receptors. Includes, but is not limited to: HU-210; HU-211/dexanabinol; JWH-018; JWH-073; JWH-081; JWH-200; JWH-250; CP 47,497 and homologues.”
Perricone and Brown both agree Texas state legislation needs to be updated, like in other states that have already done so, with language that blankets all forms of synthetic marijuana.
Until then, law enforcement officers and health authorities warn users that they can’t be sure what they are smoking or what detrimental effects the mysterious chemicals could have on them, so they are using at their own risk. And if you ask Emily Bauer, still in a wheelchair and partially blind from her experience with the drug, or Jonathan Colbert’s mother, still mourning her son’s death, if the short-lived euphoria users experience when smoking synthetic marijuana is worth risking death or debilitation, how do you think they would respond?
“It’s not worth it,” Perricone said.