With names like “spice” and “bath salts” they sound harmless enough. They’re sold in stores with everyday items like milk and candy. So, how bad can they be?
Ask Robin Smith, a Harford County mother of five, who saw her handsome, athletic, 15-year-old son slip into psychosis after he tried “spice”, or synthetic marijuana, in 2010. Three years, seventeen hospital admissions and four suicide attempts later, her dreams of a college scholarship for her son have been replaced by the grim hope that he doesn’t succeed in taking his own life.
“As a mother, I don’t have a choice but to continue fighting. I daily fight feelings of hopelessness and my anger forces me to persevere,” Smith wrote in a recent testimonial about the ravages of synthetic drugs. Her goals now are to educate others and get the drugs effectively outlawed.
Synthetic drugs produce a powerful high that can be accompanied by unpredictable symptoms, varying from one user, or use, to the next. Symptoms include seizures, hallucinations, paranoia, chest pain, insomnia, vomiting, and violent attempts at suicide. Yet, the drugs are remarkably accessible. In addition to the internet, they’re sold in head shops, gas stations and convenience stores, in small packets costing as little as $25.
“This is the number one issue that we’ve been seeing in the last year,” said Joe Ryan, manager of the Harford County Office of Drug Control Policy, and an organizer of a drug abuse prevention symposium held June 26th at Patterson Mill High School.
Stressing the drugs’ effects as a public health concern, Ryan said that the emergency room at Upper Chesapeake hospital has reportedly seen symptoms in 40 – 50 patients per month, although he said that there is no test for the drugs like there is for cocaine. At one local high school, Ryan said that it took three deputies to subdue one student under the influence.
Despite their names, synthetic marijuana, a.k.a. “spice” or “herbal incense”, and synthetic cocaine, a.k.a. “bath salts”, serve no legitimate purpose, according to DEA Special Agent “Chip” Cook, who gave the symposium’s keynote address. Legal sales persist, Cook said, because a 2012 federal ban on the chemicals in the drugs, later mirrored in Maryland law, has been skirted by manufacturers who made slight changes to the chemicals, leaving lawmakers to play catch up. Suppliers also cleverly label the drugs “not for human consumption” to avoid prosecution, he said.
Buyers have to know what to ask for at gas stations and conveniences stores, where Cook said they are kept behind the counter. But he offered one way for the drugs’ opponents to strike back: “If you know a place selling this junk, boycott it.”
Manufactured overseas in filthy, unregulated labs, Cook said that synthetic drugs emerged in the U. S. in 2008, but they are still new enough that no one is an expert, including medical professionals who are often unsure of treatment protocols.
Cook said that legal sales at local stores, combined with brand names like “Ivory Snow”, lead teenagers to believe the drugs can’t be that bad. Not so, said Cook: Synthetic drugs are “powerful, unpredictable and dangerous.” In his seventeen year career, he said, “This is the craziest stuff I’ve ever seen.”
Synthetic Marijuana/Spice/Herbal Incense
The chemical components in synthetic marijuana are manufactured primarily in China and India, Cook said, but also in Afghanistan, Russia, and in one instance, in the basement of a daycare in Serbia. The chemicals can be “100 times more potent than THC,” the active ingredient in the cannabis plant, Cook said, but rather than bringing the user down, they cause the opposite behavior: “whacked out,” he called it.
The chemicals are mixed with various plant materials and sold in packets costing $30 – $50, Cook said, under brand names like K2, Wicked X and a popular brand name in Maryland: Hysteria. Users typically smoke synthetic marijuana, or “fake weed,” although Cook said that it is sometimes eaten.
Use has skyrocketed nationally, with fewer than 15 calls to poison control centers in 2009 jumping to 13,000 by 2011, Cook said.
Synthetic Cocaine/Bath Salts
A manufactured version of the chemical found in the khat plant of east Africa, synthetic cocaine is a nervous system stimulant in the form of a white or off-white powder or crystal, hence the name “bath salts,” Cook said. Similar to synthetic marijuana, it’s sold in packets costing $25-50, under brand names in Maryland such as Hulk, Taz, Speedy and Road Runner. Users typically snort, smoke or ingest synthetic cocaine.
The growing use of synthetic cocaine is also reflected in nationwide calls to poison control centers, with 302 calls in 2010 rising to 5,600 in 2011, Cook said.
Through the combined efforts of federal agencies, a nationwide crackdown on synthetic drugs made from banned chemicals took place in July 2012, and Cook said it won’t be the last. However, Ryan cautioned symposium attendees, “I’m here to tell you that we can’t arrest our way out of this problem.”
Three years after her own shocking introduction to synthetic marijuana, Harford County parent Robin Smith is on a nationwide crusade to help others and get synthetic drugs off the street. She calls herself “one angry mom,” especially at the stores that sell the drugs regardless of their devastating impact.
She is currently working locally with Harford County Sherriff Jesse Bane on a possible ordinance to stop the legal sales. A petition she started in 2012 to fight synthetic marijuana in Maryland is still active despite bans on the drug’s major chemical components, because she knows that manufacturers get around the bans by making minor alterations. Smith also said she needs the petition signatures for a September rally she is planning in Washington D.C. as part of her national effort to warn others: “This is a silent form of terrorism that is slowly taking people’s lives away.”
Robin Smith’s petition can be found here: http://www.change.org/petitions/against-synthetic-marijuana-in-maryland
Anyone wishing to contact Robin Smith about her advocacy efforts is invited to contact her firstname.lastname@example.org
More information on synthetic drugs can be found at the following Web sites:
www.justthinktwice.com (for teenagers)
www.getsmartaboutdrugs.com (for parents and caregivers)