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Officials warn of danger of ‘synthetic marijuana’

By Staff | Oct 29, 2010

As if parents do not have enough to worry about with underage drinking, the use of illegal drugs and the abuse of legal ones, they now must add one more concern to the list.
Synthetic marijuana, a combination of legal herbal mixtures and synthetic chemical compounds, is a growing concern among local law enforcement and health care professionals. On Monday, two Cape Coral teens were hospitalized after using the substance, which is currently legal in Florida.
“This is just one more thing that we need to talk to them about,” Deborah Comella, the executive director of the Lee County Coalition for a Drug-Free Southwest Florida, said.
Synthetic marijuana is marketed for sale as incense in smoke shops, gas stations and convenience stores. Sold under a variety of names including K2, Spice and Mr. Nice Guy, the product is smoked to achieve a “legal high,” but this can have potentially hazardous side effects as seen in the Cape incidents.
“There’s no way of knowing if you’re going to potentially be that person who ends up in the hospital room,” said Dr. Timothy Dougherty, a toxicologist and the medical director of Cape Coral Hospital’s emergency department.
Adverse side effects have included pain attacks, heart palpitations, hallucinations, delusions, vomiting, increased agitation and dilated pupils.
He added that the long-term effects of the product are unknown.
Cape Det. Sgt. Allan Kolak, of the Professional Standards Bureau, said synthetic marijuana is available for purchase in at least 12 stores in the city. Depending on the quantity, the substance can vary in cost from $20 to $45.
One gas station in the Cape sells products weighing one gram for $9.99.
“You can get it pretty regularly and pretty easily,” Kolak said.
Because it is sold as incense — the labeling on some packages do state that the product is not for human consumption — there is typically not an age restriction on buying the substance. One gas station in the Cape requires the purchaser to be at least 18 years of age, the same age for buying tobacco.
Cape Coral interim Police Chief Jay Murphy said one store pulled the products from its shelves after learning about the two teens who were hospitalized.
“He felt it was morally the correct thing to do,” he said.
According to Kolak, the CCPD was aware of synthetic marijuana prior to Monday’s incident, but officials did not know how close the problem was.
“We didn’t really know it was here until this case,” he said.
Cape Coral Hospital first identified the issue of synthetic marijuana earlier this year when a man in his early 20s required treatment. Dougherty said the man was a “significant case” and had to be treated in the Intensive Care Unit. Since then, there have been “sporadic cases” involving the substance.
“It’s not something we’re seeing on a daily basis,” he said.
The teens hospitalized Monday had been treated and released as of Friday.
According to Kolak, the only way to combat the issue now is with education.
In December, local law enforcement members intend to make a presentation to the Florida Legislature on synthetic marijuana. The five-county area will be represented as well as southern Sarasota, Murphy said. The presentation will be made on behalf of the Southwest Florida Police Chiefs Association.
The group will push for legislation to ban the substance in Florida.
“We have what appears to be a growing problem, not just here is Southwest Florida, but throughout the country,” Murphy said.
Synthetic marijuana products are currently illegal in 13 states.
Because synthetic marijuana is not comprised of the same composition as regular marijuana, urine tests and field drug tests will not detect synthetic marijuana. States that have banned the substance can properly test for it.
According to Dougherty, researchers at Clemson University first created the synthetic cannabinoid compounds to study their effect on the human brain. After the research was published, others replicated the process and created synthetic marijuana by essentially spraying the chemicals onto legal herbs.
“It was purely for research,” he said of the researchers’ creation.