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Longview missions see fallout of increasing synthetic marijuana use

By Phil Latham
Nov. 8, 2014 at 11 p.m.


Just before 10 a.m. on Election Day, a line formed outside of a small building in the 300 block of South Mobberly Avenue.

A group of young men milled impatiently at the door, hands in pockets against the slight chill of the morning.

They were not waiting to vote.

The building houses a business called Twisted Smoke, and the group had gathered for the opening of the store that sells, among other items, potpourri - also called synthetic marijuana. This is not your mother's potpourri, but the variety that is smoked to achieve a legal, powerful - and some say dangerous - high.

The Rev. Jennene Laurinec, director of Newgate Mission, knows about the effects of potpourri firsthand. Twisted Smoke is almost directly across the street from Newgate, and she is seeing the fallout - literally.

"I got called out recently to a young girl who was seizing out in the street. She was so hot she was trying to shove ice down her clothes to cool down. I took her to the hospital myself. She could have died out there. She didn't, but she could have," Laurinec said.

The woman, whom Laurinec said receives assistance from Newgate, is a longtime user of potpourri and once rode her bicycle to buy the substance from a store on the stretch of Texas 149 known as Whiskey Bend.

That took substantial effort to feed a habit. Now all it takes is a walk across the street.

"I am having people who regularly come here, good people, who I have had to ban because they have become combative, paranoid, almost zombified," Laurinec said of the typical effects of synthetic marijuana.

She has had discussions with officials of the Longview Police Department and the East Texas Council on Drug and Alcohol Abuse, who have both come to visit Newgate Mission.

But police in Longview and across Texas have struggled to enforce a 2011 state law against the product - often labeled potpourri or herbal incense - because the law targets the products' chemical makeup, which dealers routinely tweak to avoid prosecution.

So, as of last week, sales continued across the street from Newgate.

A pajama-clad clerk at Twisted Smoke told a visitor that the store sells potpourri. The product is openly on sale in convenience stores and other shops across the city and county, as well.

Hiway 80 Rescue Mission

A few miles across town at Hiway 80 Rescue Mission, Director Eric Burger also said the use of synthetic marijuana is a growing problem that is getting worse.

"It's hard to detect so you don't know someone has a problem until they are ready to throw someone else through a wall," he said. "You can't test for it because (manufacturers) are constantly changing the chemicals they use. People think because it is so easy to get it is OK."

Burger stressed more than once that the drug is not OK.

"It messes you up," he said. "It changes your personality. We are trying to get people back to work and supporting themselves, and when they use this it becomes very difficult."

Longview mental health professionals say they've seen effects ranging from confusion to psychotic episodes - sometimes even after just one use.

The staff of Hiway 80 Rescue Mission works hard to prevent any sort of drug use, Burger said, but with more than 200 people housed each night, it does sometimes happen.

Controlling the use of synthetic marijuana will be a challenge, though he suggested public pressure on those who sell it has helped.

"The folks selling this stuff saying it is just for taking a bath or something, that is a load of crap," Burger said. "The owner who knows what it is and keeps selling it, I don't think is ever going to change. Those in convenience stores, we might be able to convince them to stop."

Because of peddlers always slightly changing the chemical makeup of so-called potpourri, Burger said he isn't sure passing another law could combat it.

Laurinec said dealing with people who use synthetic marijuana is a substantial cost for the city.

"This isn't good for the individuals who use it, but it is terrible for the community," she said. "It is expensive when you consider that an ambulance has to pick them up then they have to be taken to the emergency room and treated."

Impact on the community

Chris Carpenter, who works in ETCADA's Prevention Resource Center, said synthetics such as potpourri rank high on the list of substances that cause the most problems in East Texas. He said that is despite the fact it is much less prevalent than other situations ETCADA deals with, such as addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs.

"A lot of people use it as a means to substitute for a marijuana high. It is not," he said. "It is much more powerful. This is a substance that you can use, literally, two, three or four times and have a problem with it."

Potpourri is sometimes called synthetic marijuana, but those familiar with the drug say that, to the end user, marijuana and potpourri have little in common. While marijuana usually has a "mellowing" effect, potpourri can cause psychotic breakdowns.

Carpenter said those who use synthetics are often trying to avoid the detection of drug tests, but that is an advantage likely to soon go away.

"More and more UAs (urine analyses) are testing for it," he said.

Burger said it can be even more difficult for users to break the potpourri habit than with more traditional drugs.

"I know of one person out here who was able to get off of it," he said. "He is a success story, is working and doing well now. I know a lot more who were able to stop using other drugs more easily."

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