October 8, 2014
Story by: Lauren Halligan
Featured in: Saratogian
Synthetic forms of a traditionally naturally grown drug are popping up around the country, and drug enforcement agencies are being accused of not keeping up with regulation.
Synthetic marijuana-like drugs , also known as “K2,” “Spice,” and “Skunk,” though banned from New York sale, are still an issue, as ER visit statistics show.
Synthetic drugs are a toxic combination of chemicals made to mimic 9-tetrahydrocannabinol, known as THC, the main psychoactive ingredient of marijuana. These drugs, not tested for safety, are often made to seem inviting and harmless, sold under names like “plant good,” “incense,” or “spice.”
According to the Congressional Research Service, the effects of synthetic drugs ranges from nausea to drug-induced psychosis, making the harmful nature of the drugs unpredictable and making them unsafe for consumption.
Though the Federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has banned certain ingredients of the drugs nationwide, they’ve only hit 20 of the hundreds of chemical substances used in the synthetic blends. New combinations are pop up frequently and are legal until federal government acts on it.
The DEA is currently investigating approximately 300 of these compounds, which have been found in synthetic drugs across the country, but the it has yet to add the majority of them to the list of controlled substances.
Despite efforts to limit synthetic drugs, synthetic marijuana and other hazardous drug-like products are still being sold online and on store shelves throughout the state.
Senator Charles Schumer is urging the DEA to swiftly ban the hundreds of remaining chemicals to its list of controlled substances.To help, he’s pushing a bill that should make the process easier. Schumer will push for new legislation that would make it easier to crack down on even newer synthetic chemical compounds that are likely to emerge in coming years.
The Protecting Our Youth from Dangerous Synthetic Drugs Act that Schumer and Senator Dianne Feinstein are cosponsoring would make it illegal to import controlled substance analogues—or alternative hazardous synthetic drugs — for human consumption and establish an inter-agency committee of scientists and the DEA that is responsible for the establishment and maintenance of an administrative list of controlled substance analogues.
As the bill’s title explains, Schumer’s main reason behind this legislation is to keep the drugs from children, and keep those kids out of hospitals. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene reported that synthetic marijuana-related emergency room visits were up 220 percent in the first half of 2014. The synthetic drugs can lead to seizures, hallucinations, high blood pressure, rapid heart rate, and panic attacks, as well as dangerous and erratic behavior.
“Despite efforts to crack down on synthetic drugs, the massive 220 percent uptick in ER visits this year shows that these horrible chemical compounds are far from being in the rear-view mirror,” said Schumer in a press release. “Statistics show that synthetic drug use is on an upswing, and that is largely because synthetic drug makers are skirting around restrictions and developing new, dangerous chemical compounds that are not yet regulated. And the kicker is that the federal Drug Enforcement Agency has every bit of authority to wipe out hundreds more chemical substances used to make synthetic marijuana, like “K2” and “Spice”. As a result, more and more kids in Upstate New York are ending up in the emergency room, and it is time for federal law to catch up.”
“This foot-dragging allows makers of “Spice” “K2” and others to work around the law, and simply use chemicals that are not yet banned,” a press release from Schumer’s office said.
In 2012, Schumer helped pass legislation that gave the DEA enhanced authority to ban new synthetic drugs, but they have only banned approximately 20 out of 300 of the chemicals.
Between the years 2009 and 2012, synthetic drug abuse was on the rise and the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012 banned many forms of these chemicals and enhanced DEA authority to ban new ones that emerge. Congress used its legislative authority to place over 20 chemical compounds that had been used in synthetic marijuana and other synthetic drugs into Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), the classification for the most dangerous drugs. The legislation also gave DEA enhanced authority to temporarily place uncontrolled substances that pose an imminent hazard to public safety, like these synthetic chemicals, into Schedule I of the CSA.
After passing the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act, synthetic drug usage initially declined. However, according to data from the American Association of Poison Control Centers, synthetic drug use is back on the rise again in 2014, with human exposures this year projected to far outpace the number of exposures in 2013.
By order of the commissioner of the state dept. of health, all stores selling tobacco-related products were inspected for synthetic drugs in 2012.
In Rensselaer County there were four or five locations where it was found for sale, according to MaryFran Wachunas, public health director for the county. The stores in violation were informed them they could no longer sell those products, and authorities checked up to make sure the substances did not reappear at a later date.
Though the public health department hasn’t seen many calls on synthetic drugs as of late, Wachunas said it would be a positive step if federal government became more involved. With new forms continually popping up, “Federal regulation would encompass all variations of it,” she noted.
As coordinator of the Rensselaer County Stop-DWI Program, James Gordon said he hasn’t heard of issues in the county lately, but “One instance of someone using it, thats’ still too much.”
Many local smoke shops reported that they do not sell the substances, whether legal or illegal blends.
But when something is legal, it can be sold as easily as a candy bar at a corner store. “They were selling it right out front on the racks where they’re selling all of the other paraphernalia,” Gordon recalled of the 2012 inspections.
Saratoga County Sheriff’s Office said it hasn’t yet seen any synthetic marijuana, but it has encountered and dealt with similar substances such as bath salts and synthetic heroin