It’s plentiful, accessible, and legal. Synthetic marijuana, also known by brand names including “Spice” and “K2” has become prevalent across the country, and the west suburban area is not immune. Until the sale and possession of synthetic marijuana becomes illegal after the first of the year, kids are able to walk into tobacco stores and buy the marijuana-like substance—often marketed as incense and/or potpourri.
Area police, hospitals and schools are increasingly facing the reality of kids smoking and then suffering from ill-effects from the substance. Synthetic marijuana consists of dried herbs which have been sprayed with a synthetic compound mimicking THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. Packets of synthetic marijuana are marked as not being suitable for human consumption, thus avoiding regulation. However, police officials know without question that sales are made with the complete understanding by shop officials that the substance will be smoked. It is often displayed at stores near pipes, tobacco and other paraphernalia.
Tactical officer Michael Eddy of the said although use of synthetic marijuana is widespread, the majority of local abusers seem to be juveniles between the ages of 16-21. Often, he said, the kids who try it are exploring and experimenting with drugs.
“Sometimes they’ll be kids who are using other illegal drugs and adding this into their repertoires,” he said. “It’s competitive with the black market drug prices; inexpensive compared to going to a dealer and purchasing real cannabis.”.
Synthetic marijuana is seemingly attractive to kids because it’s been legal, doesn’t show up on drug tests and is easily purchased. Kristin Bormann, Student Assistance Program Coordinator at said the schools are aware of the growing use of synthetic marijuana and are working with students and parents.
“Sometimes what we’ll see is that kids, who are first time drug users, think it’s less threatening because they’ve been able to buy it in a gas station,” Bormann said. “They try it, and find that the side effects are frightening. I don’t think that the kids have any idea when they try it, but then they learn quickly that it’s a very scary drug.”
A senior at who will be referred to by the pseudonym Alex, who is completing college applications and working towards the rank of an Eagle Scout, uses synthetic marijuana. Alex has been arrested for possession of the paraphernalia he uses to smoke synthetic marijuana, and recently faced a 10-day suspension from school for the same reason. Alex recalled he was skeptical when his friends first told him about synthetic marijuana.
“They said it was sold legally in tobacco stores and that it wouldn’t show up in any drug tests, which was the main draw,” he said. “I was looking at getting a job, so I knew there would probably be drug tests. And also, we could buy it at any tobacco store anywhere.”
Although he’d heard of serious side effects resulting from the use of synthetic marijuana, he researched the substance on-line and said what he read didn’t scare him. In best case scenarios, the smoker gets a minor buzz perhaps followed by a subtle headache.
“It’s a lot like regular marijuana, but you feel drowsy and your mind doesn’t work quite right,” Alex said.
However, similar to most drugs, adverse reactions are possible. Synthetic marijuana has been blamed for smokers experiencing hallucinations, breathing difficulties, seizures, paralysis, extreme anxiety, rapid heartbeat, vomiting and more.
Jeffrey Pollack, Coordinator of Partial Hospital and Chemical Dependency Programming at said he and his staff are seeing an increase in the number of patients having abused synthetic marijuana.
“We started getting patients who had experimented with it, and had been admitted to the hospital for drug triggered manic episodes of psychotic episodes,” he said.
Because of the absence of drug testing for the substances, Pollack said, they only hear about incidents when the abuser admits to them.
“People will eventually report it because it made them sicker than they anticipated or it had a more intensive effect than they’d anticipated,” he said.
Because synthetic marijuana is manufactured on the street or overseas and is unregulated, the composition is always changing.
“That’s very frightening,” Pollack said. “It’s very scary. You don’t know what you’re getting, what you’re smoking, so you don’t know the short or long term damage. We’ve seen it’s triggered severe psychotic delusional events. Toxic chemicals can break down brain cells. We don’t know what the stuff they’re spraying it with is, and what toxic it is or what the long term effects might be.”
While the laws will change after the first of the year and the sale and possession of synthetic marijuana will become illegal, officials feel that this will not significantly deter its distribution, as it is readily available on the street and via the Internet.
Meanwhile, another designer drug that’s become popular as of late is known as “bath salts”, and is marketed with benign names including “Ivory”, “Wave”, “Vanilla Sky”, “Bliss” and “Plant Food”. The substance has nothing to do with bathing, and is referred to as bath salts because it resembles what you might buy at Bath and Body Works or similar stores.
When used as a drug, bath salts are often snorted, ingested or smoked, and the list of potential side effects include hallucinations, paranoia and psychotic episodes.
“We’ve learned from debriefing kids that snorting is the most common method,” said Matt Gainer of the DuPage Metropolitan Enforcement Group. Because they act as stimulants to the central nervous system, Gainer said that the effects of bath salts are “often consistent with the effects of cocaine. Kids think they’re going to get a euphoric high but it’s the opposite. Kids experience uncontrollable behavior like picking at themselves or doing things outside of the norm. They can’t sit still. There are stories where kids have peeled the skin off of their faces.”
“It’s frightening. Kids today seem to be a lot more fearless than ever before.”
Gainer said that the reported use of bath salts nationwide has climbed dramatically. According to the National Drug Intelligence Center, in 2009 there were no calls to the Poison Control Centers concerning bath salts. In 2010 there were 302 reported calls, and from January 1 through September 30, 2011, there were 5,225 calls. All of the calls, Gainer said, were likely the result of severe reactions
During the summer, Illinois House Bill 3042 and 2089 went into effect, making the sale, distribution and possession of bath salts illegal. While no longer carried legally in tobacco stores or “head” shops, Gainer said it’s still too readily available and he believes it will be a serious problem in the area.
“As long as the Internet is out there, anything is accessible,” Gainer said.