Feds ban synthetic marijuana

Growing concern about drug reactions prompts decision

by Frank DeLoache, Brian Carlton and Sarah Gilbert

North Mecklenburg stores that sell any type of synthetic marijuana have until Dec. 24 to get the product, most commonly known as Spice or K2, off their shelves.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration issued an emergency ruling Nov. 24, making the drug and all chemicals used to create it illegal to manufacture, possess or distribute. Using its authority to temporarily take chemicals off the market, the federal agency banned the products for one year, while officials consider permanently prohibiting sale of such substances.

Local parents, doctors and school officials welcomed the decision.

Donna Kirkovich has conducted her own one-woman campaign to ban synthetic marijuana since police called her to Presbyterian Hospital-Huntersville the night of Oct. 10. Her daughter, Emily, and a 22-year-old man were rushed to the emergency room after smoking incense in a water pipe and collapsing.

Doctors at the hospital 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.

When a reporter told Kirkovich about the new federal ban this week, she responded, “No way! Oh my God, are you kidding? I can’t believe it. This is the most wonderful news. Happy birthday to my daughter.”

Emily Kirkovich, a student at Hopewell High School, turned 17 on Tuesday, Nov. 30, and she was equally happy to hear about the federal action against synthetic marijuana. Though she’s tried to talk to other students about the physical reaction she had to Spice, she said they dismiss her concern. Most have tried some form of incense, and they tell her she over-reacted to the effect of the drug.

On the other hand, she’s had other students approach her for support in helping convince their friends not to smoke the incense.

“I know it’s dangerous, but other kids think they’re invincible,” Emily said. “They say they’ve tried it, and they don’t have a problem with it. I tell them they just haven’t had a problem yet.”

In just the past few months, Dr. Sid Fletcher, an emergency room physician at Presbyterian Hospital near uptown Charlotte, said other doctors in his group have seen more cases of people brought to the ER after smoking K2 or some other form of synthetic marijuana. Mid Atlantic Emergency Medical Association also provides emergency room physicians for Presbyterian Hospitals in Huntersville and Matthews, which also have seen patients with “very negative” reactions to the synthetic drug.

The drug-laced incense is easy to find at gas stations, convenience stores and smoke shops. Though Spice and K2 are the most well-known brands, others include Genie, Heavy D, Yucatan Fire, Sence, Smoke, Skunk, Zohai, Funky Monkey and Afghan Kush.

Most patients exhibit “high anxiety, high paranoia and accelerated heart rate and high blood pressure, often with vomiting,” Fletcher said. Most of the patients are young adults or older teens, he said, and they often come in groups, after smoking the synthetic marijuana at a party.

In the cases he’s seen, most of the symptoms don’t last, Fletcher said. The problem is no one is regulating the manufacture of the drug, so the strength of the synthetic drug can vary widely from package to package and users have no way of knowing the other chemicals that might get mixed into the incense.

Fletcher and his medical group have read reports of medical complications leading to death and of people committing suicide while under the paranoia-inducing influence of synthetic marijuana.

After hearing about the problems with the synthetic drug, Gerald Healy, principal of Charlotte Catholic High School expanded the school banned-substance policy to include any type of incense. Healy sent out a notice of the change to all parents, and on Thursday, Dec. 9, at St. Matthews Catholic Church, the school will hold a mandatory meeting for students and parents about substance abuse. Healy has arranged for law enforcement, drug control and religious leaders to speak.

“The one thing we’ve found that’s been successful is a test specifically designed to detect K2,” Healy said. “I think the kids are a little more cautious knowing we have a test because the reason many of them went to K2 to begin with is because it was undetectable.

“I think banning the sale of K2 is an important part of protecting the kids, but we, unfortunately, know that if kids want it, they’ll find a way to get it. It’s a shame, but we have to be realistic and proactive about keeping our kids safe.”

Federal officials said the explosion in reports about bad reactions to synthetic marijuana prompted them to take action. 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.

“We were already looking at banning synthetic marijuana, as it is a drug of concern,” Michael Saunders, spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration, said. “We started getting more and more calls, from the U.S. Poison Control Center and from citizens. Basically, it was a bad drug, and we needed to do something immediately.”

Synthetic marijuana developed out of a 1995 research experiment at Clemson University. Research professor John Huffman created synthetic cannabinoids, as they are called, to help in his studies on the human brain. His work in the field led to new versions of pain medication.

Huffman took the chemical composition for marijuana and altered two molecules, creating the new substance, which was then legal to use in research. That formula circulated on the Internet, finding its way across the globe and turning into a designer drug. Now, officials have identified at least seven different variations of the drug on the market.

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