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Synthetic marijuana use & abuse a concern in Maine

10:52 PM, Feb 19, 2013   |    comments
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A package of K2 and a concoction of dried herbs sprayed with chemicals are seen in this Feb. 15, 2010 photo.(Photo: Kelley McCall, AP)


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PORTLAND, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- Enter most any smoke shop or head shop in Maine and you are likely to find it.  And it is carried by many gas stations, too.  It, is a designer drug made to mimic the effects of marijuana, sold as potpourri in colorful packaging that is stamped with a warning that it is not for human consumption, but users and kids all know that if you smoke it, it will get you high, sometimes with very serious side effects.

"Everyone knows what it is being used for," admits Maine's top drug cop, Maine Drug Enforcement Agency Director, Roy McKinney.  "We are hearing more and more about it, and really it is being marketed and pushed as a legal high."

In July of 2012, the US Government passed a law outlawing synthetic cannabinoids, better known on the street as Spice, K2, fake weed or potpourri, but before the ink was dry on the legislation, manufacturers altered the chemical composition ever so slightly to keep the product on the shelves.

Currently, there is little McKinney or other law enforcement officers can do to keep these drugs out of stores and off the streets because they are legal.

"This is a real challenge," explained McKinney.  "It is a real challenge for public safety, law enforcement.  It is a real challenge for treatment folks and prevention folks because we have - these so-called research chemicals and that is what they are - that are being marketed by those that are out for the almighty dollar."

Police aren't the only ones struggling to deal with users.

"We are seeing an influx of these consumer products that are spiked with these designer drugs," said Dr. Tamas Peredy, the medical director of the Northern New England Poison Center and an emergency room physician at Maine Medical Center.

"The problem is, in the emergency department, when they come in, they are out of control," said Dr. Peredy.  "All that I am seeing is a guy coming in, being held down by police officers or EMS workers, and I have got to get the situation under control."

Peredy says it is difficult for doctors to tell the difference between users of synthetic cannabinoids and bath salts, another synthetic compound that has caused widespread problems in Maine.

"They are so agitated that they require a lot of resources, particularly up front," said Dr. Peredy.  "They require many security guards, they require the critical care area, they require nursing support because you have to give them sedating drugs and they may stay that way for days."

Users may experience hallucinations, extreme anxiety and paranoia from the drug, and open themselves up to a host of medical complications including rapid heart rates, vomiting, seizures and in rare cases death.  Last week the national Centers for Disease Control issued a report that found some users experienced kidney damage.

Doctor Peredy says the long-term effects of use are unknown, as are the chemical compounds used in many of these drugs.  "It is likely that the long-term abuse of stimulants eventually causes certain types of brain damage," said Dr. Peredy.

"They vomited, they had a seizure, I've had some clients tell me they actually became disorientated where they might have been a block from their house and they couldn't identify how to get home," explained Jennifer Zorn, a substance abuse counselor with Day One who works with teens and young adults.

"It is just very scary, very scary," she said.  "Anything that they are putting in their bodies, the brain is developing around that.  So if we are using substances that are often illegal, or not, it is going to affect their development.  And by the time that they are 25, they are not going to be able to function at the same level as those of us that may not have been using when they were younger."

"We don't know what's in it, we don't know how it is affecting our body, we don't know the long-term effects, and again it is hard to tell young people this," she added.  "It seems like it's fun."

"We are definitely seeing a large spike in its use," said Senior Lead Officer, Dan Knight with the Portland Police Department.  "We have a lot of the younger kids, it is illegal for them to buy alcohol, buying drugs is expensive and illegal, but they are using this spice right now which is legal to use."

The packaging often contains bright colors and familiar cartoon characters on them, making them even more attractive for kids to buy and try, said Knight.

"It is easy to get, and here are some kids thinking like, 'well, I'm 18, I can't buy alcohol, buying drugs are illegal, but I can go here and buy this, it gets me messed up and I'm not breaking the law'," said Knight. 

He says officers are frustrated that stores in the city are selling it to kids, even telling potential users about its effects and potency, and there is nothing they can do about it. 

McKinney hopes the state legislature will take a look at making it illegal by crafting legislation similar to what helped get bath salts off of store shelves. 

"Every state is confronted with this challenge, as is the Congress," he said.

Tim Goff, WCSH

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