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Synthetic marijuana use prompts health concerns


Local health and school officials are expressing concern about the sale and use of synthetic marijuana products.

The product, sold legally as an incense or potpourri, combines several common herbs that are then sprayed with synthetic cannabinoids. Going by the nicknames K2, Spice and Mr. Nice Guy, it has been linked to hallucinations, paranoia, seizures, increased heart rate and increased blood pressure. Users of the product get high through smoking, injecting, ingesting or snorting the substance.

Many of the products are labeled as “not intended for human consumption.”

“There’s a long list of effects that these particular drugs can cause,” said Ginger B. Hall, director of patient services for Jefferson County’s Public Health Department.

The product has been put in the spotlight for its use among teenagers. A study by the Office of National Drug Control Policy released in December estimated that slightly more than one in 10 12th-graders had used synthetic marijuana, making it the second most frequently used illicit substance after marijuana. Ms. Hall said while the products are being marketed to young people, there was uncertainty about the impact of their use.

“We’re not sure what it will do to them today, or the long-term effect,” Ms. Hall said.

T. Michele Caliva, director of Upstate New York Poison Center, said about 20 of the 1,300 calls received at the center in 2011 from Jefferson County residents requiring emergency medical care were because of synthetic marijuana products. That number is up from four the previous year, which had a similar number of overall calls.

Adding that the calls are predominantly for high school and college-aged people, she cautioned that the number of cases reported is “a tiny reflection of what’s really going on.”

“These kids are getting very, very sick from them,” Ms. Caliva said.

Several school administrators said they were talking to their staffs about the synthetic marijuana products.

“We’re aware, and we are very concerned about it,” said James Kettrick, Indian River Central School District superintendent. He said district staff members had not seen any cases of students in possession of synthetic marijuana.

Likewise, Watertown City School District Superintendent Terry N. Fralick said he and his staff had not seen the substance on any of the district’s students.

The product is sold online and legally at a few retailers in and around the city.

Two of those retailers are The High Life, 22220 Route 11, and Trip on the Wildside II, 671 Mill St. When visited by a Times reporter Thursday, both stores sold several types of potpourri and incense-based products, often near pipes and other smoking devices. Owners of both stores either declined to comment or were unavailable.

A city police spokesman said the department had limited data on the use of synthetic marijuana. However, the department had received emails in the past few months from people concerned about the drugs and their effects.

Despite its risks, there has been little that lawmakers can do to get the product off the shelves.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration placed five chemicals used in making the substance on a one-year temporary ban as it examined a potential permanent ban.

However, with several hundred chemicals that can be used to make the products, many companies have simply moved to new chemicals, circumventing the legal barriers.

“As soon as one product is banned, a slight alteration is made, and a new product is on the shelves,” Ms. Caliva said.

Assemblyman William A. Barclay, R-Pulaski, introduced legislation in January in an attempt to prohibit synthetic marijuana. Based on legislation that banned the product’s chemicals in Colorado, Mr. Barclay’s bill would prohibit chemicals that simulate the effects of marijuana, instead of targeting individual chemicals.

“What we try to do is try to encompass everything so they can’t get around it,” Mr. Barclay said.

He said his bill was prompted by calls from police and health care officials who had seen adverse effects from people using the substance. He was optimistic his bill, now in committee, would get support from other legislators.

“As more stories come out about the kind of harm these kinds of things are causing, that will push this along,” Mr. Barclay said.

If the legislation passes, New York would join about 40 other states that restrict the sale of synthetic drugs.

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