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Crackdown on synthetic pot has driven the dangerous drug to the streets

As efforts to legalize marijuana increase across the country, what began as a novel, “legal” alternative to weed has devolved into a dangerous street drug.

Synthetic marijuana comes in shiny, colorful packets scrawled with innocent-sounding names like “Scooby Snax,” “Bizarro” and “Spice” — names that obscure its harmful, sometimes deadly ingredients.

When it first emerged on the market, it was sold mostly online and in convenient stores. But law enforcement officials say they’ve seen a recent shift from the market to the streets.

In the first five months of 2015, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention documented at least 15 deaths from the drug, a threefold increase from the previous year. At a Washington, D.C. emergency room, doctors see four to five overdoses from the drug every night, according to Dr. Kama Tillman, an emergency room physician. That’s up from one to two cases monthly a few years ago, he said.

And as doctors race to keep up with this surge, counselors, experts and law enforcement officers have observed another troubling trend: users are increasingly coming from the most vulnerable, marginalized communities: poor, urban and homeless populations.

“We’ve definitely seen a change,” said Michele Caliva, director at the Upstate New York Poison Center. Caliva works with a network of doctors and health professionals who she says have seen a clear shift in synthetics users to older and poorer demographics.

“We originally felt that [synthetic marijuana] was being marketed for younger people, for teenagers,” said Lt. Andrew Struhar, acting lieutenant of the Narcotics Unit of the Washington DC Police. “But it has definitely drilled down to the street, and unfortunately a great deal to the homeless population.”

The changing nature of the drug has posed enormous challenges for law enforcement, he said.

William Brangham reports for the PBS NewsHour on the synthetic drug Spice.

“The progression of the drug from when we started, being advertised in windows of gas stations and convenience stores to street sales, has definitely been a bad case scenario. Because street sales are much more difficult to find, to locate and prosecute,” he said.

In one of the largest busts ever of its kind, the Washington, D.C. Police seized 265 pounds of synthetic marijuana in September from a D.C. warehouse – a total street value of $2.3 million according to police.

Two suspects were charged with possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute. The drugs were packaged in neon pink wrappers and labeled: “Not for human consumption.”

Though synthetic pot is banned in all 50 states, manufacturers repeatedly respond by changing the drug’s chemistry just enough to skirt the new legislation.

This legal game of cat-and-mouse has led to an even more unpredictable and unregulated stream of drugs pouring onto the streets of cities across the U.S. Users we spoke to in Baltimore and Washington said it is now easier to buy Spice from local street dealers – just like any other illicit drug – than online or in stores.

Synthetic marijuana is nothing like its namesake intoxicant. The drug was developed in the 1990’s by chemist John Huffman for medicinal research purposes. It is typically produced as a chemical liquid, which is then sprayed onto generic plant matter. The label “not for human consumption” is typically a marketing ploy, an effort to label it as an innocent herbal substance, like potpourri. But when smoked, the effect is intoxicating and dangerous.

“I hit it two times. And then I don’t remember anything,” said Molly, a 16 year-old from Maryland who experienced a seizure her first time smoking synthetics.

“I didn’t look it up. I didn’t search about it. I was like, ‘This is gonna get me high.’ That’s really all you’re thinking about.”

Dr. Marc Fishman, an addiction psychiatrist and medical director of Maryland Treatment Centers, says that the comparison to marijuana is dangerously deceiving, and that its behavioral effects are more akin to PCP.

“You see much higher rates of acute agitation. People are psychotic, delusional, possibly hallucinating, disorganized, violent. They think they are invincible, full of power.”

Many of Fishman’s patients were attracted to synthetic pot in the first place because they were subject to drug testing for marijuana itself, and still wanted to get high.

“My buddies were doing it,” said Garrett, a 21-year-old resident in Dr. Fishman’s Baltimore rehab center. “They told me that there was something called synthetic weed that didn’t come up on any drug test.”

But Garrett said the drug was nothing like the more relaxing high of cannabis.

“It just made me crazy,” he said.

Medical practitioners have watched as the surge grows as well.

“You get a lot more people who get that agitation, the psychosis, the paranoia, even convulsions,” said Dr. Kama Tillman.

“They’re belligerent, they’re wild. Their bodies are just moving around where they can’t control it, and it requires many people to kind of help keep them calm, so that they don’t harm themselves or harm anybody else.”

As efforts to reform marijuana laws gain momentum around the country and the world, the drug’s synthetic alter-ego now retreats into the shadows — taking its place as the new illicit green narcotic on the streets of America’s cities.

“I think this is the emerging face of drug abuse for the future,” said Marilyn Huestis, a toxicologist at the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “It’s a major problem.”

“All these people who are trying this now, what is this doing to their brains? What’s it going to be like in five years? 10 years?” she wondered. “We don’t know. We don’t have the beginning of answers.”

Editor’s note: On tonight’s NewsHour, William Brangham reports on the rise of synthetic marijuana, commonly known as Spice or K2.

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