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Smoked out: Synthetic marijuana likened to cocaine, meth

State health officials have banned the substance for sale in NY

The sale of synthetic marijuana, pictured here, was banned in New York state following several deaths related to the drug, which could be purchased over the counter.

The sale of synthetic marijuana, pictured here, was banned in New York state following several deaths related to the drug, which could be purchased over the counter. Photo by Amanda Seef.

— 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.

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