About eight months ago, New Choices Recovery Center, a drug and alcohol treatment center in Schenectady, became aware of synthetic marijuana.
At the time, New Choices was unable to test for the substance. But staff suspected that some of their clients were using it. Now that New Choices can test for it, they’ve confirmed that people are.
“What we’ve observed is that synthetic marijuana is readily available in the community,” said Stuart Rosenblatt, executive director of New Choices. “Our population has partaken of it.”
“It’s a serious drug,” Rosenblatt said. “It’s a threat.”
Last month the New York State Department of Health banned the sale and distribution of synthetic marijuana, which had been legally sold in convenience stores and smoke shops. Now an effort is under way to criminalize the substance.
According to state Health Commissioner Nirav R. Shah’s order, synthetic marijuana has been linked to death and acute kidney failure, and can cause an increased heart rate, paranoid behavior, agitation and irritability, nausea and vomiting, confusion, drowsiness, headaches, hypertension, seizures and loss of consciousness.
Assemblyman Pete Lopez, R-Schoharie, and Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, D-Brooklyn, are working on legislation that would attach criminal penalties to its sale or possession.
Lopez said he became concerned after a Greene County DARE officer told him about a local woman whose son had died in September as a result of using the product. He did some research and learned that the drug was “profoundly risky and dangerous.”
Synthetic marijuana has a number of street names, including Mr. Nice Guy, K2 and Spice. It consists of plant material coated with chemicals that mimic the effects of THC, the chemical that produces the high people experience when they smoke marijuana. Sellers had promoted it as a legal alternative to marijuana, but Rosenblatt said the substance is more dangerous.
“You’re basically taking compounds and adding toxins,” he said. “It reminds me of angel dust — something that someone made in a basement, or brewed.”
Maureen Carey, who coordinates the Saratoga Partnership for Prevention, a coalition with the goal of decreasing drug use among youth, said synthetic marijuana is a major concern. Last fall, the group visited local stores that sold the product and asked them to stop. Some shops agreed to do so, while others continued to sell it but removed it from view and stopped promoting it, she said.
The Saratoga Partnership began hearing alarming stories last fall, Carey said. “We began hearing about bad side effects, stabbings, break-ins where people were breaking into shops to steal it,” she said. “We started getting more calls about it and hearing anecdotes about ER visits.”
“It’s an extremely dangerous drug,” Carey said. “It’s not a natural substance at all. Nobody knows what’s in the chemicals.”
She said that testing for synthetic marijuana can be challenging because the people who manufacture it are likely to adjust their formula once they learn which chemicals the substance is being tested for.
The Saratoga Partnership hosts focus groups with teens to discuss drugs and alcohol. Carey said that more youths are aware of synthetic marijuana and that this awareness is also accompanied by a sense that the product is dangerous.
One local store, Smoke & Fire on Caroline Street in downtown Saratoga Springs, stopped selling it voluntarily about a year and a half ago after selling it for four months.
“It’s kind of scary when you don’t know what’s in the product,” said shop owner Theresa Sheffer. “It doesn’t have to be labeled because it’s used as incense.” She also was concerned that people under the age of 18 could buy it, the stories of seizures and other troubling side effects she was hearing, and the more hard-core clientele who visited the store to buy it.
Still, use of synthetic marijuana appears to be on the rise.
According to DOH, calls to New York State Poison Control centers related to its use have increased dramatically, with a total of 105 reported incidents of exposure to the products reported since 2011, compared to four reported instances in 2009 and 2010. Over half of these calls have involved youths under the age of 19. Nationally, poison control centers have received approximately 8,000 calls relating to exposure since 2011.
“Calls received by poison control centers generally reflect only a small percentage of actual instances of poisoning,” the DOH order notes. “Therefore, it is clear that many additional New York residents have been harmed as a result of using products containing synthetic cannabinoids.”
According to the Monitoring the Future survey of teen drug use, 11.4 percent of high school seniors report using synthetic marijuana in the past 12 months. The survey, which is sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and conducted by the University of Michigan, added synthetic marijuana to the study in 2011.
Lopez said that he and Ortiz hope to see legislation passed that would treat the sale and possession of synthetic marijuana in a manner similar to other illegal substances, such as Ecstasy or cocaine.
Last week Lopez and Ortiz held a press conference to discuss criminalizing it. They were accompanied by Deirdre Canaday, the mother of Aaron Stinson, the 26-year-old man who died after using it.
According to the coroner’s report, the cause of Stinson’s death was “acute intoxication due to the combined effects of ethanol and relaxinol [incense].” A witness to his death testified that Stinson had smoked Mr. Nice Guy the night of his death, and by 10 a.m. was in full respiratory and cardiac arrest and could not be revived by emergency responders.
Lopez said more people have started coming forward with harrowing stories and that he expects that increased awareness of the products will prompt even more people to do so.
Lopez called the state’s ban on synthetic marijuana a step in the right direction, but said that more is needed. “There is no deterrent that signifies the risk persons who sell or use synthetic cannabinoid take — the risk of losing their life,” he said.
Rosenblatt and other drug prevention experts praised the state’s ban and the push to criminalize it.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” Rosenblatt said. “I wasn’t sure anybody was on top of this.”