One problem with synthetic marijuana is that it can be reformulated to evade the law, one expert said.

Synthetic pot a growing menace to Georgia’s youth

One problem with synthetic marijuana is that it can be reformulated to evade the law, one expert said.
One problem with synthetic marijuana is that it can be reformulated to evade the law.

About a year ago, Lora Duffey’s 14-year-old son went into a convenience store and purchased a form of synthetic marijuana. He got it without an ID because it’s marketed as herbal incense.

The Walton County teen took it home and smoked it in his family’s basement. He then went to bed, leaving the pipe out for his 11-year-old brother to find later that evening.

When Duffey looked in on the 14-year-old, she found him struggling to breathe. That’s when her younger son told her about the pipe he’d found. Frightened and unsure of what was going on, she rushed both boys to the emergency room.

“I was told that they didn’t know if [my older son] was going to make it,” said Duffey, a Walton business owner who recently joined a panel discussion, held by the Partnership for Families, Children and Youth in Walton County, that focused on drugs.

The panel addressed substances that have been surfacing locally in recent years, including synthetic marijuana – two forms of which are called Spice and K-2 – “bath salts’’ and prescription drugs.

Duffey said the medical team at the hospital found her son’s heart rate elevated and his sugar levels at a point that threatened his pancreas and kidneys. They flushed his system with an IV, but it took the entire night to stabilize him.

At that time, there weren’t any regulations on the drug the boy had smoked, and the doctors had few answers to Duffey’s questions about what had happened.

Use of Spice and K-2 spikes in the summer months, according to the Association of Centers for Poison Control.

A lot of kids don’t know what they’re getting into with these drugs, said 19-year-old Alex Edwards, a recent graduate of Monroe Area High School, who works with the Walton County Youth Advocacy Board to help educate local youths about the dangers of drug use.

Synthetic cannabinoids first appeared in herbal incense products in the United States in late 2008, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Since then, reports to poison control centers, hospitals and law enforcement agencies involving the drug have steadily increased.

In March 2011, the DEA put five main ingredients used in synthetic marijuana under emergency federal control and regulation.

Now, like several other states, Georgia has outlawed synthetic marijuana. This March, Gov. Nathan Deal signed the ban known as Chase’s Law, in memory of Chase Corbitt Burnett, a 16-year-old from Fayette County who was found dead in a hot tub after using the drug.

Difficult drugs to stop

But even with state and federal regulations, the substance still finds its way into the hands of teenagers. And there are reports that distributors are finding ways around the new Georgia law.

Already, K-2 and Spice can again be sold legally in Georgia, because manufacturers have changed the drugs’ chemical structure, GBI spokesman John Bankhead told the AJC recently. The reformulated drugs fall outside the language of the law, and the new forms can’t be included in the ban until the General Assembly is back in session, he explained.

And even as the partnership in Walton prepared to host its drug forum in April, a 14-year-old boy in Augusta was busted for giving the synthetic pot to his friends.

Teens in Georgia cities near state lines often drive into neighboring Alabama or South Carolina to score Spice, as those two states struggle to get the substance under control.

And synthetic marijuana is readily available for purchase on the Internet.

But newly classified compounds of synthetic marijuana can be seized under an emergency ruling requested by Deal, the Albany Herald reported Wednesday.

“While this rule provides law enforcement across Georgia with the authority to seize these new synthetic cannabinoids,” Georgia Bureau of Investigation officials said in a news release Tuesday, “it does not provide for criminal penalties or arrest authority.”

By adding five more substances to the list of banned drugs, the rule gives authorities a stronger weapon in enforcement, Maj. Bill Berry, Albany-Dougherty Drug Unit commander, told the Herald.

After marijuana, Spice and prescription medications were the drugs most abused by 12th-graders in the past year, according to the 2011 Monitoring the Future Survey for the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

This was the first year that the survey included questions about the use of synthetic marijuana, and in spite of the growing regulation of the drug, the results were staggering. Almost 1 in 9 high school seniors reported using Spice in the past year.

“Spice is a huge issue,” said Nathan Blansett, 15.

Blansett is a member of the Walton County Youth Advocacy Board and a freshman at Monroe Area High School. He spoke to several of his peers about the drug while writing a story for his school newspaper, and he was shocked by what some of them had to say.

Many users ignore the dangers

Even though Spice is a newcomer, Blansett and Edwards perceive it to be just as popular as real marijuana.

In the first three months of 2011, the American Association of Poison Control Centers reported 1,344 calls about exposures to synthetic marijuana. In 2012, that number increased by more than 40 percent, to 1,901 calls.

Blansett said his peers use Spice and other drugs recreationally on weekends and are not interested in discussing the risks they’re taking. That’s why he participated in the Walton County forum and helped organize a rally against the drug in May.

With the summer months expected to lead to an increase in the use of synthetic pot, it’s now a prime time for parents and community leaders to start addressing the dangers of recreational drug use, experts say.

Whether it’s a panel discussion, a drug forum or a rally, the conversation has to start somewhere, says Amy Hunnewell, youth development coordinator for the Walton partnership.

“We need the adults to say ‘I want to be there, I want to have conversations with the kids,’” Hunnewell said.

Felicia Harris is an independent health reporter who lives in Athens, Ga. A recent graduate of the Health and Medical Journalism graduate program at the University of Georgia, her interest is in health disparities and health policy and how reporting on those issues could impact the world.