Synthetic, designer drugs were just starting to make waves in Jefferson Parish last fall when Lt. John Ladd, a detective with the Sheriff’s Office narcotics division, visited the hospital rooms of two Metairie teenagers hospitalized after smoking man-made marijuana. One 14-year-old girl went into immediate cardiac arrest after taking a toke and had to be resuscitated at East Jefferson General Hospital in Metairie. The other, a 16-year-old girl, smoked before what turned out to be a frightening trip to the Esplanade mall in Kenner.
“They were walking into the mall, and she sees the bushes and trees talking to her and jumping around. She passed out, and they called EMS,” Ladd said.
Both girls told Ladd they had been smoking “POW!,” an illegal “botanical potpourri” sold by The Rob Shop, a smoke shop with two locations in Metairie.
Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office investigators on July 19 announced the arrests of the business’s owners, Robert Bentel Jr. and Robert McPhail, along with nine other suspects in a wide-ranging crackdown on synthetic marijuana manufacturing and distribution in the parish. Detectives seized more than $1 million in cash, drugs and other assets.
Detectives uncovered an alleged trafficking business that spread to several states. But their investigation also revealed that synthetic marijuana appealed to more than just mischievous high schoolers. Agents watched adults — including soccer moms and seniors — make their way into stores that were under surveillance to buy the drug.
Case detective Adrian Thompson said while crack and heroin tend to attract a certain subset of users, synthetic marijuana consumers run the gamut.
“With this drug, it was everyone from 13 to 70,” he said. “The well-dressed, well-to-do types and the not-as-well-dressed. Every rung of the socioeconomic ladder was touched. It was completely across the board.”
Emergency room doctors at Interim LSU Public Hospital in New Orleans noticed the same diversity in the patients treated there for overdoses of the synthetic substance, according Dr. Victor Tuckler, the ER’s toxicologist. He and detective say users are drawn by the drug’s over-the-counter availability.
The Sheriff’s Office has found synthetic marijuana sold out in the open at service stations and convenience stores as well as on the Internet. No backstreet deals or clandestine hook-ups with a possibly shady dealer.
“A lot of the public believes that it’s somewhat safe because it’s being sold at retail outlets,” said Capt. Keith Simone, another Sheriff’s Office narcotics agent.
That lure, authorities say, is a lie. Many users ingest synthetic marijuana expecting the same effects as naturally grown grass but find themselves suffering from high blood pressure, nausea, high fevers, seizures and hallucinations, Tuckler said.
“A lot of their behavior and their presentation is very similar to people high on cocaine,” he said
But what has proven more harmful is the psychosis that seems to accompany the drug’s use, Tuckler said. Patients have developed delusions, violent paranoia or extreme suicidal thoughts, symptoms that persist for days, sometimes weeks.
Authorities have no way of knowing the drugs’ long-term effects because the chemical makeups are always changing. Accused local manufacturers buy the active ingredients for synthetic marijuana in powder form from unregulated chemists overseas, mostly in China, Thompson said.
They dissolve the powder into liquid acetone, the chemical used in nail polish remover, then spray it onto harmless, dried plant leaves. Authorities suspect they might include additives like hallucinogens and or nicotine.
Those back room chemists and manufacturers stay one step ahead of law enforcement by easily changing the molecular makeup of the raw chemical whenever new laws are passed banning a particular formula.
And the unknown is what makes these drugs even more dangerous, said Dr. Mark Ryan, director of the Louisiana Poison Center.
“A number of these substances have never been tested on anything,” Ryan said. “You could use of these substances and end up with Parkinson’s syndrome in a week that’s never going to go away. No one knows.”
Thompson said suspicious parents should keep an eye out for the small flashy packages of “potpourri” that bear names like “POW!”, “Nola Diamond”, “Mojo”, “K-2” and “Spice.” Adults of all ages using the drug should beware, Tuckler said. Synthetic marijuana is dangerous not just in the physical, but in the mental sense.
“You have a kid who’s in college who just wants to have a good time,” Tuckler said. “He experiments and the next day, he’s suicidal and paranoid. That paranoia could stay the rest of his life. That’s how devastating it could be.”