On Friday, Aug. 23, police in Brunswick reported that eight people got violently ill after smoking an herbal incense labeled Crazy Clown. Three more people became ill over that weekend and another case was reported early the next week, bringing the total stricken to 12 in the Coastal Georgia city.
Of these, 11 were hospitalized, with many ending up in ICU and at least one on life support. Also last week, two potential new cases involving this type of substance were reported in Bartow County, in the northwest corner of metro Atlanta.
Health officials in Colorado have reported a surge of patients showing up in metro Denver emergency rooms who are agitated and violent after using these types of products.
Reports of the incidents in Brunswick say some people’s bodies became stiff. One person was said to have started to lean against a car but froze into a fixed position about 8 inches from the car and was still in that position when responders arrived.
Some of the other symptoms described included agitation, rapid heartbeat, unconsciousness, nausea, foaming at the mouth and violent behavior.
Products such as Crazy Clown are often marketed as “herbal incense,” bath salts or “plant food.” They are often sold in legal retail outlets and labeled “not for human consumption” in order to avoid FDA regulatory oversight of the manufacturing process and to mask their intended purpose.
Synthetic marijuana, often referred to as Spice, is another of these substances that lawmakers and law enforcement personnel have been battling for years. It consists of plant material that has been sprayed with substances that users claim mimics the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana and is marketed toward young people as a “legal” high.
The alarmingly high use of synthetic marijuana has caught the attention of public officials across the nation. According to data from the 2011 Monitoring the Future survey of youth drug-use trends, Spice was the second most commonly used illicit drug among high school seniors, with 11.4 percent of 12th-graders having used it in the past year.
Public health officials say some people who smoke herbal incense are under the impression that it is synthetic marijuana. In reality, the ingredients are different, and herbal incense is not any type of marijuana.
Currently the GBI is testing Crazy Clown at its labs to determine the product’s chemical makeup. Whether the product is legal in Georgia cannot be determined until the chemicals are identified.
Herein lies the major problem with combating these products — identifying the chemicals that make up these substances.
In recent years, the General Assembly has passed legislation I sponsored that identifies certain chemical formulations used in these products and outlaws them in our state. However, minor changes to the chemical makeup of these substances have created new but very similar drugs not covered by the law.
In 2012, we erroneously thought we had solved the problem by identifying the base chemical compound used in the products, only to find out months later that a new base compound was being used, with effects that were even worse than the original.
The federal government has also tried to ban these products. In October 2011, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) used its emergency scheduling authority to move some of the synthetic substances used in these products to the category of Schedule 1 substances, meaning they could not be sold legally.
The U.S. Congress has also weighed in on the issue by passing several pieces of legislation concerning synthetic drugs. But regardless of state and federal efforts, this is one battle that we are currently finding very difficult to win. As time goes on, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the approach we are taking of trying to identify chemical compounds used in these products is not working.
The time has come for us to think outside the box. We must consider other ways to combat this growing epidemic. We have overcome greater dilemmas in the past, and working together we will overcome this one.
There is no giving up here — only working harder.
State Sen. Buddy Carter (R-Pooler), a pharmacist, serves as chairman of the Senate Public Safety Committee. He represents the 1st Senate District, which includes Bryan County and portions of Chatham and Liberty counties. He may be reached at 404-656-5109 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.