Synthetic marijuana abuse growing, officials say

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By Jessica Cohen

Over the last year, synthetic marijuana has become the wild card in “substance abuse cocktails” in the Port Jervis area, landing teens and adults in intensive care units for days at a time, local officials say.

The drug is a combination of herbs, spices and cannabanoids, chemically related to cannabis, according to the New York state Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS).

It’s commonly called K2 or Spice, among other names, and is marketed as an herbal incense, not for human consumption, but users smoke or ingest it anyway.

A recent OASAS survey of 48 substance abuse care providers statewide, covering 5,877 patients, found 22 percent of patients used synthetic marijuana.

Port Jervis police Detective Mike Worden has observed the drug’s path in Port Jervis.

“It has a much more powerful psychoactive effect than marijuana,” says Worden. “It’s also more expensive.”

Police frequently encounter users because of late-night calls complaining about loud noise, Worden says — though causes of such complaints are not limited to K2.

In pursuit of brief euphoria, users may resort to crime to get it. On Feb. 9, Worden said, a window was smashed at Jamaica Junction, a shop on Front Street. Among the items taken was K2, which was then sold legally as incense.


Banned but still available

Although synthetic marijuana has likely been available in the Port Jervis area before this year, the user population has now grown enough to be visible, says Richard Santiago, director of behavioral health at Catholic Charities Community Services of Orange County.

Selling the substance became illegal in New York state in March by order of the state health commissioner, but Santiago says its use and purchase have continued unabated.

“Users are still getting synthetic marijuana from shops in neighborhoods,” Santiago says.

Gina Matthews, of Catholic Charities’ Port Jervis office, says users continue to come to the clinic.

Meanwhile, illicit chemists are formulating versions of synthetic marijuana that evade the laws. Since laws regarding chemicals are accompanied by chemical descriptors, says Worden, variations of chemical combinations that differ slightly from prohibited drugs may be technically legal.

“Most synthetic substances have no marijuana,” Worden says. “They’re adding all kinds of chemicals similar to cannabanoids, but more powerful. We’re seeing the consequences as a problem. Abuse is more common, but it’s hard to gauge when it’s legal.”

According to Jeffrey Hammond, spokesman for the Public Affairs Group of the New York state Department of Health, a recent study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse revealed that

11.4 percent of all high school students used synthetic marijuana within the past year.


Medical effects

Hammond said side effects include rapid heart rate, vomiting, agitation, confusion, hallucinations and renal failure.

The Upstate New York Poison Control Center, which covers Port Jervis, has seen an upsurge in calls related to synthetic marijuana, from 10 calls in 2010 to 215 in 2011 and 122 in the first quarter of 2012. Most needed medical care.

“We see stronger responses to the drug, but everyone reacts differently,” Worden says. “It causes hallucinations. People see and hear things.”

“What happens depends on how much is used and in what combinations,” Santiago says. “The danger is also in unknown chemicals, especially mixed with other substances. You don’t know what someone’s putting together. There’s no control of quality or quantity.”

Chronic users who escape

the physical distress, hallucinations and helplessness that bring people to hospitals nevertheless show symptoms of brain function impairment typical of drug addiction — low motivation and muddled decision-making, Santiago says.

“These substances affect the brain,” Santiago says. “The part that helps make decisions about right and wrong is altered by chemical use.”


Prescriptions drugs still top threat

Despite the growth of synthetic cannabis, it’s still not the region’s biggest drug problem.

“Because of cost, it’s not the most common drug,” Worden says. “A three-gram package of synthetic marijuana costs $20 and makes one or two cigarettes.”

Prescription drugs are still the predominant substance abuse problem, Santiago says.

He says he recently saw a sign in his doctor’s office notifying patients that narcotic prescriptions are no longer available there; patients would need to see a specialist to get them.

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