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Synthetic marijuana still problem for area law enforcement

By Sarah Thomas sthomas@news-journal.com
Feb. 7, 2013 at 10 p.m.


Synthetic marijuana is back in the spotlight after recent incidents in Texas and Louisiana.

A Cypress teen suffered a series of strokes that left her brain-damaged, blind and paralyzed, and a Louisiana man said he cut his pregnant wife and killed his unborn baby while under the influence of synthetic marijuana.

Despite this past year's ban on the substance, area law enforcement and drug specialists said manufacturers have found an end-run to the law, and young people are still using the dangerous cocktail of chemicals.

"They just keep changing the formula to stay ahead of the laws," said Longview Police Department spokeswoman Kristie Brian. "When K2 was outlawed, they just created another substance. That's what makes it so hard to arrest and prosecute people."

Texas lawmakers banned a version of the drug - which was previously available at gas stations, tobacco shops and online - setting penalties ranging from misdemeanors to felonies for possessing, selling or manufacturing the drug.

The law put Texas in line with 16 other states that ban the substance.

Brian said area smoke shops and convenience stores are carrying the modified versions of the substances previously packaged as K2, Spice, Genie and Fire & Ice.

"They sell it as potpourri," Brian said.

Users report having the same "high" with synthetic marijuana as they do with its plant-based predecessor because the chemicals mimic organic marijuana's main ingredient - THC - and are often sprayed on herbs sold to be burned as incense or smoked.

"It clearly says 'not for human consumption,' but people still do it," Brian said.

Joyce Weiss, chief clinical officer for the East Texas Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, said manufacturers work hard to keep the drug legally in circulation.

"They change the molecular structure by one or two, and it becomes a whole different product," Weiss said. "They label it bath salts or potpourri, which means it's not a Food and Drug Administration regulated product."

Weiss said manufactures also are mindful of their packaging to keep the product's "cool" factor with young people.

"They make it look appealing and cool. They give it funky names and put really cool graphics and patterns on them," Weiss said. "It's all just a lie to the kids, and it plays to their inexperience."

Manufacturers also keep up with trends in pop culture and use packaging that reflects those trends, Weiss said.

The legal variations of synthetic marijuana also appeal to young people because they do not have to worry about getting arrested, Weiss said.

She added the drug's inexpensive price tag is another selling point for young users.

"A lot of them don't have access to a lot of money," Weiss said.

Dangerous reality

Synthetic marijuana is made, not grown, and Weiss said that makes it all the more dangerous and more difficult for law enforcement officials to handle.

"If it's a plant, it's one thing, but if it is stirred up in a factory, it's a complex chemical," she said. "In order to arrest someone and prosecute them, you have to prove it's intended for human consumption."

Emily Bauer, 17, ignored the drug's labeling when she bought fake marijuana in December at a gas station near Houston, according to a CNN report.

Bauer complained of a migraine 15 minutes after smoking the substance, CNN reported.

Later that evening, she experienced violent hallucinations, was running into walls and urinating on herself, CNN reported.

Doctors ultimately had to put Bauer in a medically-induced coma and drilled a hole in her skull to relieve the pressure on her brain.

A recent report published by the Drug Abuse Warning Network found youths ages 12 to 17 make up one third of synthetic marijuana users.

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