Apr 10, 2012 Amanda Seef Uncategorized
Three lives in upstate New York were lost in the last year, due in part to synthetic marijuana, a drug that some say could be likened to crystal meth or cocaine.
“I would classify it in the same realm,” said Dr. Ross Sullivan, a medical toxicology fellow at the Upstate Poison Control Center. “It’s definitely a lot worse than regular marijuana, but it’s not studied as much as cocaine or meth. It’s more like those drugs, though, in terms of danger.”
Now, the state health department has placed a ban on the sale and distribution of the drug as researchers continue their look into its effects on the human body.
The state health commissioner signed the order late last month, effectively banning any chemical compound used to mimic the effects of herbally grown marijuana. The ban comes after numerous deaths and illnesses associated with the chemically altered plants, including at least three deaths in the greater Central New York region in the last year. County Health Commissioner Dr. Cynthia Morrow confirms two of those deaths were investigated by the county’s Medical Examiner’s Office. All deaths were “young men,” she said.
“We can only say that they were associated with synthetic marijuana,” she said. “We can’t say they were caused, only associated.”
The deaths mirror a national trend — hundreds of calls related to synthetic marijuana issues cycle in to local and national poison control centers on a daily basis. In 2011, the American Association of Poison Control Centers reported an average of 580 calls per month related to the substances. In 2012, the average has spiked to 631 calls per month for the first part of the year.
The drug is made in uncontrolled environments — though synthetic marijuana was sold in stores, the Food and Drug Administration did not clear it for consumption. The “herbal blends” and “incense” were sold with the assumption the consumer would not smoke, inhale or eat the drugs, a clerk at a local head shop who asked to remain anonymous said.
The blends are made from a plant or flower that typically would not give off an effect if smoked. Makers of the products then spray a chemical on the plant.
“There are so many unknowns with synthetic marijuana,” said Morrow. “They’re all produced in unregulated labs in other places. No one is looking at the herbs or flowers, or at the chemical that’s being applied to these [plants]. We just don’t have the data to give descriptions of exactly what’s going to happen because it’s changing all the time.”
The drugs have been sold under an innocuous name, packaged and sold as incense or herbal supplements. The product was made to look like traditional marijuana, and aims to work off the same receptors of the grown variety.
“It goes to the same receptors marijuana does, but it does so with 10 to 50 times the potency,” said Sullivan.
He says what the drug does when it reaches those receptors is the problem.
“We don’t know what these drugs do,” he said. “Do these medicines unmask people who might have psychological problems, heart problems or seizure problems — does it affect them more?”
Calls related to synthetic marijuana use made to the Upstate Poison Control Center have more than doubled in the last year as the drug has reached peak popularity.
People are seeking medical attention after the drug causes a quickened heartbeat, seizures, convulsions, hallucinations, agitation and other physical and mental ailments. Doctors say the chemicals in synthetic marijuana can bring out, or worsen, medical conditions the drug user was not previously aware of.
“It can make you really sick and you can die,” said Sullivan. “We’re not seeing this drug itself killing people, but we’re seeing people having seizures or heart attacks and dying. It’s not a safe thing.”
Across the country, numerous suicides have been reported after the use of the drug.
Synthetic marijuana isn’t being screened on traditional drug tests, leaving it open to those who are routinely drug tested at work.
“The word is out it doesn’t show up on drug screens,” said Sullivan. “People assume it’s going to work like regular marijuana, but you just don’t get caught. It’s not a good alternative to marijuana.”
Screens for the synthetic marijuanas have not been developed yet because of the varying chemical compounds in each. Blood tests and more specific lab work can determine if a person is under the influence of the drug, though.
Of the 236 locations in Onondaga County where the synthetic marijuana could have been sold, only 25 were doing so. Health officials visited all of those locations between March 28, when the ban took effect, and April 3. All retailers, such as head shops, tattoo parlors and convenience stores, were in compliance with the ban and were cooperative, Morrow said.
The ban calls for the ban of the sale and distribution of the drug. It’s not currently illegal to possess or use the drug, according to state penal code. But this ban is the first step for a barrier to the drug in New York state, Morrow said.
“When you add barriers, it impacts people’s behaviors,” Morrow said. “I’m hopeful that in a short time we will be able to see a decrease in people calling about being sick. That’s the goal of this ban — to decrease the ability of it to hurt people. By making it less accessible, we should start seeing fewer people sick because of it.”
Morrow says a majority of the calls and visits to emergency departments related to synthetic marijuana use is by teens and young adults, who had reasonable access to the drug. That age group was “disproportionately accessing” the drug, she said. Talking to kids in high schools and colleges about the effects of the drug is another crucial step in the ban.
“There’s still a need for parents to know about synthetic marijuana so they can talk to their kids about it,” she said. “This is just one step in decreasing the impact these poisons have in our community, on our youth. We still need the dialogue to occur.”
Sen. Charles Schumer was in Syracuse in February to call out the sale of the incense and herbs. He’s co-sponsoring legislation at the federal level to ban any substance used to replicate the effects of marijuana.
The ban, supported by Schumer, would “cast a wide net” over existing products and other possible chemical combinations.
“We won’t play this whack-a-mole game,” Schumer said during his visit to Syracuse. He said banning each compound will not eradicate the products from the market, and a comprehensive ban is the preferred method.
Reporters made numerous attempts at contacting head shops and former retailers of the synthetic marijuanas. All declined comment on the topic.