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Synthetic Marijuana: Into The Shadows

by Matt Makowski + photos by Chris Jackson

Synthetic Drugs

After the closure of Hagerstown's two largest synthetic marijuana distributers, use is on the decline, but the rise in a black market and what's to follow remain in question.

Amidst the everyday discord surrounding the war on drugs, it’s often difficult to separate fact from fiction. In reality, there is very little research done on the effects of human consumption. When referring to the new crop of synthetic drugs like “spice” and “bath salts,” even less is known because of their relatively short existence and time on the market. Considering these drugs have been on the radar for less than 10 years, it’s impossible to know their long-term effects.

As is the case for all illegal drugs, there is no regulation of potency. This lack of “quality control” means that users never really know exactly what they are consuming, let alone the dosage they are imbibing. With the properties of synthetic drugs varying widely, so can their effects. For the user, not knowing what or how much he or she is taking means a rise in the possibility of negative side effects or overdose.

“The issue with synthetic marijuana is the unintended side effects which I have witnessed in several patients. Things like psychosis, hallucinations and ‘excited delirium.’ The last of these is the most concerning,” says Dennis M. Browne, captain of the Life Safety Program for the Community Rescue Service in Hagerstown. Anecdotal evidence aside, the use of synthetic marijuana has been linked to strokes in a paper by Dr. Scott Burgin of the University of Southern Florida that was published in the journal Neurology. Additional studies have connected use to increased heart rate, dangerously elevated blood pressure, and vomiting, which suggests an impact on the cardiovascular system. The hallucinations — and in some extreme cases, seizures — are believed to show evidence of the effects of synthetic marijuana on the central nervous system.

The Rise Of Synthetics

When referring to synthetics, many take the terms “spice” and “bath salts” too literally. These are not products you’ll find at Bed Bath and Beyond. These nicknames were invented to circumvent laws that make selling them for human consumption illegal. A few years ago, you could walk into any number of convenience stores, head shops, or hookah lounges and buy sealed pouches of various synthetic drugs. As high-profile incidents like the “Miami Face-Eater” (who as it turns out was not on any synthetic drugs as was reported nation-wide) the beating of movie executive Brian Mulligan while he was on bath salts, and a rise in hospitalizations from exposure to these drugs was reported, laws were put in place to ban these substances.

Because the state and federal laws are so specific as to the chemical compounds that are considered illegal, a complication arose. Keeping up with the chemists who create synthetic drugs proves difficult because they need to make the next batch just different enough that it doesn’t share the same molecular structure as a banned substance. The Federal Analog Act allows any chemical “substantially similar” to a controlled substance listed in Schedule I or II be treated the same way — but only if “intended for human consumption.” That last part is key, and the very reason underground chemists tweak their drugs and then package them with the explicit statement: “Not intended for human consumption.” The white crystals that resemble Epsom salts were sold under the guise of bath salts, and the leafy substance that looks like it belongs on your spice rack has been referred to as plant food, fish food, incense and spice.

Nearly two years ago, 15 synthetic cannabinoids (spice) and 11 synthetic cathinones (bath salts) were placed under Schedule I of the Controlled Substance Act. The Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012 made the use, possession, and distribution of these drugs illegal. However, drug formulations not covered by that law’s language were open to be sold under the façade of other uses to avoid the aforementioned Analog Act. As soon as a law is updated to include new strains of synthetic “designer drugs” under Schedule I, the chemists behind them adapt their compounds and start selling something new that’s not regulated, and “not intended for human consumption” — though that is expressly the intention.

Despite the troubles with staying ahead of these chemists, the law’s impact is evident. Only 343 spice exposures were reported to the American Association of Poison Control Centers through February of this year, compared to 1,291 in 2012. For bath salts, that number has dropped to 104 so far this year compared to 463 at this point in 2012. Locally, these laws played a role in getting two of the biggest distributors shut down: Lion’s Den Hookah Lounge on N. Potomac St., and Stix-N-Phrases clothing store on W. Franklin St. Even though it was well known they were both distributing the drugs, it was a matter of catching them with a banned version of the drug.

For the shops, the goal was to sell out of a drug before it became illegal, then get a new batch that hadn’t been seen before — and that can happen in less than a week, much to the consternation of Hagerstown Police who had been leading a crackdown on synthetics for months. “We would go in there and buy it one day and it actually was a legal product and the next time we go in it’s illegal. It’s hit and miss, and they [agents] have to keep going back for multiple buys,” says Hagerstown Police Chief Mark Holtzman, adding, “Speed is of the essence here. By having a local lab and a competent narcotics agent working hand-in-hand — and judges helped us out and got that search warrant quickly — we can go from buy, to process it, put it into evidence, have it processed in the lab, and back in front of a judge within a day or two on a spice case.”

Off The Shelves, Into The Alley

Use of bath salts in this area appears to be very low. The Western Maryland Regional Crime Laboratory has only received a few bath salts case submissions in the past few years. And thanks to aggressive tactics by local law enforcement, the use of spice in the region looks to be dropping. The targeting of distribution outlets and the subsequent seizing of the drugs and money associated with the sales, has made continuing to sell them legally and economically risky for legitimate businesses. In turn, the spice trade has moved from a grey market and into the black market.

The Drug Task Force had trouble locating any spice in the area for months after Lion’s Den and Stix-N-Phrases were shut down, but just in the past several weeks, they’ve identified some street-level dealers that are selling it, according the Chief Holtzman. “When this stuff was out there and being sold [in shops] there was no noise about it, so the assumption was ‘it’s legal, so it must be ok,’” says Supervisory Forensic Scientist for the Hagerstown Police Department Jeff Kercheval. Now that it’s been relegated to the same shady places as heroin and crack, the hope is for this to go away quietly.

A User’s Lament

“When it became illegal, everyone had their blowout sales, and it was gone,” says Roger, an anonymous source for this story, who says he’s used spice at least 100 times and used to work at a shop that sold it. “If I wanted spice, I wouldn’t know where to look. I would probably just ask the folks who were selling the harder stuff,” he says. But he’s in no hurry to look for it anyway. When he used it, it was out of convenience — just a substitute for marijuana. But as his cough worsened and after a melt down while on it that included a screaming fit, joy-filled crying, internal dialog with someone else — he described it as telepathy with himself — and the divine touch of a religious experience that involved his inner voice whispering “it’s all true” in regards to Bigfoot, UFOs, God, and extra-dimensional beings, Roger doesn’t miss it at all. “It’s good it went the way of the dinosaur,” he says.

By no means is this to say “Mission Accomplished” though. It’s merely a shift in the market. “It’s going to continue. It’s going to expand into every type of drug that we’re used to,” says Chief Holtzman of synthetic drugs. The fear is that people are going to turn to synthetics of all kinds of drugs, and there will be so many varieties out there, nobody will have a real reference point as to their potency and capabilities.

The psychedelic drug 251-NBOMe (street name N-Bomb) started showing up recreationally in 2010 and was temporarily moved to Schedule I status on Nov. 15, 2013 by the DEA using their emergency scheduling powers. The drug is similar in effects to LSD and is consumed via tiny drops on a piece of blotter paper, but is much more potent and can be lethal. The DEA reports that N-Bomb has been involved in at least 14 deaths nationwide. “We’re getting some N-Bomb up here right now, but we haven’t seen a lot of it. We’ve had two cases just come in that are listed as LSD. I haven’t analyzed them yet, but I’m pretty sure it’s gonna be N-Bomb,” says Jeff.

“A lot of people are switching over to these synthetics, and they’re just not safe. They look safer, and you’re getting them from somebody that’s not the typical scary source or cocaine cartel type person, but this stuff’s every bit as dangerous,” says Chief Holtzman. People are looking to the police as the answer, but they’re only part of the answer. A problem like this needs community involvement. Have a discussion about this with your kids, or with people who are using and get them connected with help. The bottom line is this is not a problem that can be arrested away.