Growing use of ‘synthetic pot’ worries parents, authorities

Huntersville teen collapses after smoking incense

by Frank DeLoache, Josh Lanier and Brian Carlton

HUNTERSVILLE – A Huntersville teenager and 22-year-old man were rushed to the emergency room earlier this month after smoking incense in a water pipe and collapsing.

Doctors at Presbyterian Hospital Huntersville treated both patients for extremely high blood pressure and heart rate, and the teenager drifted in and out of consciousness for two to three hours, according to her mother, Donna Kirkovich, and Huntersville police.

After her daughter recovered, Kirkovich was shocked to learn the incense her daughter and others at the party were smoking – though a synthetic form of the chemical found in marijuana – is completely legal in North Carolina.

Her daughter smoked Spice, but forms of the specially laced incense are sold under a variety of names, including K2, Genie, Yucatan Fire, Sence, Smoke, Skunk, Zohai, Funky Monkey, Afghan Kush and Heavy D.

Huntersville Police Lt. Ken Richardson said officers commonly refer to the laced incense as “synthetic pot.”

The incense is widely available and popular. An employee of Smoker’s Depot said that stores in south Charlotte, Mint Hill and Indian Trail carry the brand known as K2, and it is “very popular.” Kirkovich’s daughter, who attends Hopewell High School, told her local teens buy the laced incense at convenience stores and gas stations.

“We do sell quite a bit of it,” the Smoker’s Depot employee said. “I actually sell more to older folks,” rather than teenagers, he said.

As the popularity has grown, so have the incidents of serious reactions, like the recent incident in Huntersville.

The American Association of Poison Control Centers says it received only 14 calls about medical problems tied to the incense in 2009, but as of Sept. 27, the poison control group already had gotten 1,503 calls this year, with most victims suffering a racing heartbeat, elevated blood pressure and nausea.

Kirkovich has launched her own campaign to warn parents and school officials about the dangers of the laced incense and convince N.C. lawmakers to ban it.

Kirkovich will find plenty of allies in her campaign – in Charlotte and neighboring Union County.

Only two weeks ago, Charlotte Catholic High School Principal Gerald Healy expanded the school banned-substance policy to include any type of incense. Healy sent out a notice of the change to all parents.

The school reacted after catching “a couple of kids caught off campus smoking it” and then one student brought it on campus, Healy said.

Charlotte Catholic does random drug testing of all students, but “kids tell me … they are using it (in part) because they say you can’t test for it,” Healey said. An article in the Fayetteville Observer reports, however, that Cumberland County authorities are using a urinalysis that tests for the chemical in Spice.

“I’ve also had kids tell me it gives them a great high and better feeling of euphoria than marijuana, and to me, that’s dangerous,” Healy said.

Students caught at Charlotte Catholic with the laced incense will face suspensions as if they had marijuana, a cigarette or smokeless tobacco.

No one has been caught since the rule change, but “do I think kids are still doing it? Yes, I do,” Healy said. “If nothing else, we’re becoming more educated ourselves about it and, in turn, we’re planning to have some parental education programs.”

The principal is concerned that students have no idea what the incense really is, where it comes from, what it’s laced with or how it’s treated.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the hallucinatory incense is treated with “synthetic cannabinoids,” which “are chemically engineered substances, similar to THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.”

The manufacturers spray the chemical on dried herbs and market their brands on the Internet as well as retail outlets that sell tobacco products. “When smoked or ingested, (those chemical substances) can produce a high similar to marijuana. Initially developed for research related to treatment of pain and the effects of cannabis on the brain, these substances have recently become a popular alternative to marijuana,” the conference of legislatures reports.

Alison Lawrence, a policy analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures, said the challenge in creating a ban is accurately defining the chemical that acts like an amphetamine. A slight change in the chemical makeup creates a different product, and states that have enacted bans have identified at least seven categories of synthetic cannabinoids.

Ten states have banned the chemicals, including Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky, and four other states have enacted administrative bans of the products, Lawrence said.

“We’ve been consulting with representatives from the N.C. legislature, providing details to help in structuring a possible bill that could go before the General Assembly in January,” Union County Sheriff Chief Deputy Ben Bailey said this week.

“A lot of people, from the Chief (of Police) Association to the sheriffs association are working to get the General Assembly to ban this stuff,” said Lt. Mackey Goodman, head of the Union County Sheriff’s Office Drug Enforcement Task Force.

Officials say the laced incense first appeared in Europe, and “the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction cautions that little research has been conducted on their effects on humans,” the conference of legislatures reported. Though research in humans is lacking, animal studies indicate that the potency of the synthetic hallucinogens can vary widely, Lawrence said.

That’s what worries Donna Kirkovich, who learned of her daughter’s overdose from a Huntersville police officer calling from at the Presbyterian Huntersville’s emergency room.

“I’m worried that other teenagers don’t know the dangers they’re exposing themselves to,” Kirkovich said. “I will do whatever I have to do. I want this banned and taken off the shelves. It’s nothing but poison. It’s like giving a kid a gun and playing Russian roulette. The kids don’t know what reaction they’re going to have from the drug.”

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