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East Texas police seek solution to synthetic marijuana problem

By Sarah Thomas sthomas@news-journal.com
March 8, 2014 at 11 p.m.

Synthetic marijuana almost killed James Young.

"I almost shot myself because I had lost my mind from it," the 31-year-old Kilgore resident said Friday afternoon at the home he shares with his wife, Shawn Young. "When you damn near commit suicide and you don't even know why, that pretty much will put you in your place."

After three years of daily use, James Young stopped using the substance in October because he found himself bedridden and rapidly succumbing to physical ailments - inability to sleep, constant vomiting, loss of appetite, violent mood swings, irritability, rapid heartbeat, chills, constant fever, paranoia and memory loss - that he said were caused by smoking the substance commonly packaged and sold as potpourri.

His story is among the many that have led city and county officials to discuss how to eradicate synthetic marijuana while fighting the uphill battle of increasing usage.

"Use is up. We see people smoking it, and we see the results of it," Longview police spokeswoman Kristie Brian said. "Some of them just lose their minds, and not all of them fully recover. We are getting more and more calls about people doing strange things."

Five people ages 19 to 49 were admitted to Good Shepherd Medical Center on Thursday night after using synthetic marijuana, Brian said.

That same night, officers with the Longview and Gregg County narcotics unit issued two citations to clerks who work at businesses that sell synthetic marijuana under a section of the Texas Penal Code dealing with "deceptive business practices." They issued three more citations Friday under the same code.

"The police department is developing a process for addressing the sale of such items utilizing Texas Penal Code Section 32.42," city spokesman Shawn Hara said.

Brian said Subsection B4 gives law enforcement agencies room to penalize the clerks who work at places such as the Glass Dragon, Wildflowers and Scooby Snacks, each of which have locations in Longview that sell the potpourri.

The statute reads, "A person commits an offense if in the course of business he intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or with criminal negligence" sells "adulterated or mislabeled commodity."

The offense is a Class C misdemeanor, and violators face up to a $500 fine for the first offense. A second violation results in a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $4,000.

"Abilene PD and the AG's office have gotten together, and Abilene PD has used this, and it has worked for them," Brian said. "We will continuously look at other options, and this is a first step in combating this problem."

<h3>Call for action</h3>

Mayor Jay Dean said in February 2013 the city was "reviewing with our legal department what legal limitations we have with regard to banning all synthetic marijuana. If we can legally ban all of it, I intend to bring that before City Council."

A year later, the city has not implemented a full ban, but progress has been made with such methods as issuing citations under the penal code.

Months ago, city and county officials began discussing options that would pick up where the state Legislature left off in 2013 when it failed to ban the substances that manufacturers created as an end around to the 2011 ban on then popular brand names such as K-2, Genie and Fire & Ice.

"The city has been following the issue closely," Hara wrote in an email. "At the state level, even within the last year, there had been the potential that the Legislature might address the issue during one of the special sessions, but nothing ever materialized."

Area retailers such as the Glass Dragon, which has three stores in Longview; Wildflowers, which has two stores in the city; Scooby Snacks, with one location in the city; and Brianna's Stop and Shop in Clarksville City sell the potpourri, Brian said, because manufacturers tweak their formulas to keep their product just above the law.

"When the city of Longview passed our local K-2 ordinance, the state Legislature had yet to take action on the topic," Hara said. "Since that time, the state Legislature has addressed K-2, but they haven't specifically dealt with some of the similarly used substances now in circulation."

The Longview City Council, Dean, Sheriff Maxey Cerliano and others have been trying to find a way to rid the city and the county of all forms of the product.

"Law enforcement has the responsibility to enforce the law but not the authority to create the law," Cerliano wrote in an email. "The state Legislature has the authority to enact state law, the city council has the authority to create city ordinances and the county commissioners court has a limited ability to enact certain special orders."

Longview Police Chief Don Dingler, Kilgore Police Chief Todd Hunter, Gladewater Police Chief Robert Vine, White Oak Assistant Police Chief Terry Roach, Cerliano and Gregg County District Attorney Carl Dorrough met Jan. 30 at the sheriff's office to talk about the problem, Cerliano said.

"We continue to search for a legal solution to this enforcement problem. At this time, it would appear that the best avenue is enactment of a state law to address this problem. The Gregg County Organized Drug Enforcement Unit (CODE) has conducted undercover investigations into these operations," Cerliano said.

The products purchased by undercover officers were submitted for lab analysis, he said.

"The results of these lab tests failed to establish a violation of state law," Cerliano said.

<h3>Rising problem</h3>

Brian said police get calls about people standing in the middle of the road with no recollection of how they got there and people imagining they are being chased.

"They feel like they are having a heart attack. Some of these kids really and truly think they are dying. (Synthetic marijuana) makes you totally freak out. That's the only way I can really even say it," she said. "It's like playing Russian roulette."

On Feb. 27, police arrested 32-year-old Tazille Madison after they found his 11-year-old daughter lying injured behind a building on High Street.

Madison, according to police reports, had taken "two hits" of synthetic marijuana that caused him to act so erratically behind the wheel his daughter jumped from the moving vehicle.

She was airlifted to a Dallas hospital with life-threatening injuries.

Madison said he had no recollection of the incident.

CODE Sgt. Chad LeMaire said the issue has developed a sense of urgency.

"In light of all the recent reports and calls where synthetic marijuana and other substances similar to this have been taken by people we have come in contact with, synthetic marijuana is a big concern for LPD," he said in an email. "Each and every day, officers come into contact with people who have used these substances, and we believe these substances have caused them to have unpredictable, harmful side effects. We believe that synthetic marijuana is a public safety concern, and we are doing what we can, within the law, to combat this growing problem."

<h3>Kicking the habit</h3>

James and Shawn Young agree public safety is in jeopardy as long as the potpourri remains on the shelves.

"It almost killed my husband. It almost destroyed my marriage," Shawn Young said.

The couple compares the chemicals in synthetic marijuana to methamphetamine.

"I would've been safer drinking a fifth of vodka and getting behind the wheel. No joke. That's how bad this stuff is," James Young said.

He recalled times when being under the influence of synthetic marijuana made him so mad that he wanted to fight himself.

"I've sat at the table and got mad because my glass of tea wasn't full when I was the one that had drank it," he said.

James Young started using synthetic marijuana at age 27 because the legal alternative to pot made sense for him.

"I was a weed smoker, but I ended up finding a job I liked more than I did the weed so I switched because this stuff can't be detected in a drug test," he said.

Addiction set in quickly, he said, and his habit soon grew to about $150 per day.

"People think it's like weed and not addictive. It's going to reach in and it's going to grab you and you're not going to be able to get away from it. It's a drug point blank, period," his wife said.

She watched helplessly as her husband's health continued to decline.

"He had a persistent cough for more than two years. He lost 60, 70 pounds. He was just a shell of a person. He always had this really bad attitude," she said.

One day, Shawn Young gave her husband an ultimatum: stop using synthetic marijuana or she was leaving.

He decided he'd rather have his family.

A trip to the hospital helped cement the end of James Young's potpourri use.

"It super heats your body. My core temperature was never below 100 degrees," he said.

Withdrawals from the potpourri, he said, were 10 times worse than detoxing from opiates.

"I've done a lot of stuff in my time and this, man, is way worse than any of it," he said.

Although the substances are not illegal and the packages are labeled "not for human consumption," Shawn Young believes the owners of the Glass Dragon stores should feel a moral obligation to stop selling the potpourri.

"People selling drugs that are way less dangerous than this stuff are put in jail for 50, 60 years," she said. "The Glass Dragon is no better than the average Joe Blow drug dealer selling meth and crack."

Brian said the Glass Dragon stores are the largest sellers of the potpourri.

The owners of the Glass Dragon in Lakeport declined to comment.

It's been four months since James Young has used synthetic marijuana.

"Everything is so much better now," Shawn Young said. "His health has improved. His attitude is better, and we're happy."

<em>- Follow Sarah Thomas on Twitter: <a href="https://twitter.com/sarahLNJ" target="_blank">@SarahLNJ</a></em>



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