Synthetic marijuana, packaged under names like "herbal incense" and "potpourri," gives users a high similar to cannabis, and the side effects can be dangerous.
Law enforcement officials, politicians and substance-abuse specialists say this kind of drug is quickly becoming a serious problem in the North Country.
According to the Franklin County Prevention Task Force, brands like K2, Spice and Kush are sold legally, on the Internet and in stores, to buyers over the age of 18. When smoked or ingested, they provide a high and can also result in increased heart rate, paranoia, psychosis, vomiting and seizures.
These wrappers for Demon and Super Kush, brands of synthetic marijuana marketed as 'potpourri,' were lying on the ground as litter in a Saranac Lake parking lot Tuesday night.
(Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)
In a recent interview with the Enterprise, Lt. Brent Davison of the state police Troop B Bureau of Criminal Investigation said increased use of synthetic drugs is happening at the same time law-enforcement agencies look to crack down on prescription drug abuse.
"Now you start seeing some of the other synthetic drugs coming out on the market, and that's going to be a whole new problem," Davison said. "Stuff like the K2. There's companies making synthetic or fake marijuana that they sell as incense, when in reality everybody knows that people are taking it and smoking it to get an altered state of mind."
Davison said businesses across the North Country are selling these products, including "bath salts," a synthetic stimulant that has an effect similar to amphetamines.
"And they'll put a warning on it: 'Not for human consumption,'" he said. "But in reality, everyone selling them knows what they're going to be used for. We've had several people going to emergency rooms for severe problems. We fortunately haven't had any deaths up here, but there have been deaths in other parts of the state and country."
Last year, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency imposed a crackdown on Spice and other fake pot brands. The one-year crackdown aimed to avoid what the DEA called an "imminent threat to public health and safety." The action labeled five chemicals found in the products as temporarily controlled substances under federal law, meaning they became illegal to possess or sell. Those five chemicals, the DEA said, "claim to mimic THC," the active ingredient in marijuana.
DEA Administrator Michele M. Leonhart said in a 2011 statement that since 2009, the agency has received an "increasing number of reports from poison control centers, hospitals and law enforcement" related to the use of synthetic marijuana. What's worse, she said, is that young people believe the products to be safe.
Davison said efforts to ban the substances haven't been successful.
"And unfortunately, what happens is that they get chemists and stuff that just alter whatever that scheduled drug is by a couple things so it's no longer illegal to sell it," he said.
Lisa Parker, of Saranac Lake Middle School and the Franklin County Prevention Task Force, wrote in a letter published in today's Enterprise that even middle school children are using these synthetic drugs and that in the last year, more than 10 percent of high school seniors claimed to have used them.
"This illegal drug use is second only to marijuana and is clearly on the rise," Parker wrote.
Prevention specialists said parents should look for a variety of warning signs that could signal whether children are using the products. They include mood changes, depression, decreased motivation, bizarre behavior, change in appearance and delusional thoughts.
Local politicians are beginning to take note of the growing epidemic. Last week, Essex County supervisors called upon state lawmakers to address the problem.
"The items are legally sold as incense or bath salts," said Lewis town Supervisor David Blades. "In reality, if these legal products, sold in New York, are ingested, users can experience unexpected anxiety attacks, extreme paranoia, hallucinations, thought of suicide and are most definitely at risk of hurting themselves or other people."
Blades said that in addition to the federal government, 38 states have taken action "to control one or more of the chemicals used to provide the state of euphoria associated with synthetic marijuana." He said policymakers in Albany need to follow suit.
Enterprise Senior Staff Writer Chris Knight contributed quotes to this report.