Locals Fume Over Synthetic Drugs

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On Tuesday, an 18-year-old man became unresponsive while smoking what Athens County Sheriff’s Deputies described as “synthetic marijuana.”

The man allegedly purchased a good called “Deathgrip” at Twilight Boutique in Athens, OH before going to a home outside of town to consume it.

Known as “synthetic marijuana,” “herbal incense” or “potpourri,” such substances can be purchased at head shops around the nation and are legal, for now.  

A day after the incident, the Associated Press reported the Drug Enforcement Administration and other federal agencies issued search and arrest warrants across the United States in efforts to crackdown on those who make and distribute synthetic designer drugs, including the so-called “synthetic marijuana.”

What Is It?

Well, according to Dr. Joe Gay, the executive director of health recovery services and a clinical psychologist by training, he says what it is exactly cannot be easily determined.

“Well, this term ‘synthetic marijuana’ applies to a set of substances that are sometimes sold as incense or spice and they tend to be some organic material including spices of various herbal products, some of which may be slightly psychoactive,” he said.

Gay says these chemically-altered substances are problematic for many reasons. On one end, the side-effects of ingesting or consuming such drugs can be both physically and psychologically damaging since they are made of ingredients that are much more potent than what is in traditional marijuana.  

“The other problem is that making this stuff involves organic chemistry, which is a complex and exact science and when you’re making organic chemicals you don’t always, and often don’t, come up with only what you were intending to make. These things that are sold may contain contaminous impurities and different chemicals,” he said.

Such effects include an increasing heart rate, increasing blood pressure and can even result in death.

“Conventional marijuana does not cause acute medical problems,” Gay said.

However, some of those affects could be similar to marijuana. The difference is in the potency and how prone an individual is to experiencing such symptoms.

“The psychological symptoms appear to be worse than what is usually seen with marijuana, although there is some overlap. With these substances you see people experiencing hallucinations, paranoia, very substantial anxiety and suicidal ideations,” he said.

Another difference is the principle psychoactive ingredient. In marijuana, it’s called Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).  In “synthetic marijuana,” the base chemicals cause a different action in the brain compared to THC.

“They’re called full-agonists; they completely occupy or completely activate the receptors, whereas THC only partially activates those receptors. This makes them more potent,” he said. “They’re dangerous.”

And even though the products display labels that say “not for human consumption,” Gay and others are not convinced.  

“That’s one of the signals that that’s what it’s for. Go to Krogers and look at a bar of soap. You won’t see that on most of the soaps,” he said.

Marijuana vs. ‘Synthetic Marijuana’

Don Wirtshafter, legal counsel for the pro-marijuana legalization organization Ohio Rights Group and an Athens-based lawyer, believes people wouldn’t consume such products if marijuana was legal.

“People get in trouble for the presence for marijuana in their urine. They can catch it months after you have consumed it and people who care about employment and want to stay out of jail are the people buying this product,” he said. “The real solution is to make marijuana legal and nobody will ever touch this stuff.”

Austin Okey of the newly formed Southeast Ohio National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws echoed Wirtshafter’s statement.

“The issue is when people get in trouble for pot. They can’t smoke real weed so they turn to these alternatives that are actually worse for them,” he said.

But, as it is, marijuana is illegal and such substances are not. Athens City Chief of Police Tom Pyle says police officers are required to enforce the law on the books, even though he recognizes the dangers of the synthetic product.  

“The laws are ever changing in an effort to keep up with the sometimes devastating effects that ingesting these substances can create,” he said. “It seems like when a substance is banned, the manufactures change one chemical precursor and the substance becomes legal again until outlawed.”

And as the government looks to gain control over these substances, another group is looking to legalize traditional marijuana.

Currently, the Ohio Rights Group is working to get signatures to put a proposed constitutional amendment to legalize medical marijuana and certain uses of hemp on the ballot for 2014.