July 25, 2013

Maine seeing surge of scary drug called Spice

Poison center calls about the synthetic form of marijuana have eclipsed those for cocaine, ecstasy and amphetamines, despite being nearly unheard of in Maine before 2010.

By Joe Lawlor jlawlor@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Sandra Watson, left, listens as her son Dylan Young talk about smoking dangerous synthetic drugs that mimic marijuana on Tuesday July 23, 2013 in Augusta. Last spring Young told legislators the story of his bad reaction to Spice, the one time he used it, when he testified in a favor of a bill to ban synthetic drugs.

Joe Phelan / Kennec Journal

click image to enlarge


Starting in the 1980s, what is now known as Spice was created in a lab at Clemson University by professor John W. Huffman, who was researching synthetic cannabinoids. The research examined how these compounds could be used in new pharmaceutical products to potentially treat nausea and glaucoma, and as an appetite stimulant, according to the Clemson website.

But the research had unintended consequences, and some used Huffman’s research to produce synthetic marijuana. The synthetic marijuana, often called Spice or K2, spread across the country in the late 2000s and resulted in admissions to hospitals for hallucinations, psychotic behavior, rapid heart rates and other symptoms. Maine and many other states have since banned Spice, although manufacturers have found ways to circumvent the laws by slightly changing the chemical composition.

Huffman, in a 2011 profile by the Los Angeles Times, told the newspaper that the products were never intended to be smoked.

“These things are dangerous – anybody who uses them is playing Russian roulette,” Huffman said. “They have profound psychological effects.”

The most widely used chemical compounds in the manufacture of Spice bear Huffman’s initials, JWH-073, JWH-200 and JWH-018.

– Joe Lawlor

Dylan said he wanted to go public with his story because he doesn't believe it should be legal to sell such a dangerous drug.

"Before I tried it, I thought it was basically the same as marijuana," he said.

Watson said her son has become more reserved and aggressive since then. She said doctors are still evaluating him to see if there have been any long-term health effects.

Health officials say the symptoms that Dylan experienced are similar to other Spice cases reported around the state and nation. Some have resulted in heart attacks, although there are no known deaths in Maine attributed to Spice.

Media have reported deaths from Spice use in Texas, Indiana and Michigan.

"There's a perception that Spice is not risky. But this is not just like having a little bit of 'super pot,'" said Karen Simone, director of the Northern New England Poison Center. "We've had many cases of people showing up at the hospital, and a lot of times they're scared."

Simone said people don't know what chemicals they're putting into their body.

"It's so new, we don't know what the long-term effects are going to be," she said.

Dr. Mark Publicker, addiction specialist at Mercy Recovery Center in Westbrook, said the center is just starting to see Spice cases, often in conjunction with other drug abuse.

Publicker said Spice users can suffer from psychotic episodes, panic, paranoia, hallucinations, rapid heartbeat and restlessness.

"Some people who have come in said it scared the hell out of them," Publicker said.

Initially, detox treatment could include tranquilizers and anti-psychotic medications. Although Spice doesn't induce a chemical dependency, people can become psychologically addicted to the high, he said.

"It's an extreme state of euphoria," Publicker said, explaining that the high is similar to ecstasy, although the drug acts in other ways like marijuana. "It's five times more potent than marijuana."

Withdrawal symptoms can include depression, anxiety, exhaustion and vomiting.

"The biggest problem with it is its availability to teenagers," Publicker said. "It was sold right alongside the Slim Jims."

According to the poison center, nearly half of the Spice referrals it received were from teenagers.

Although it often comes with a warning that it's not for human consumption, there have been no age restrictions on purchasing Spice.

That made it seem to some like it was almost a benign substance, officials said. The marketing often targeted younger people, with one brand showing Scooby-Doo with his tongue hanging out.

"How it was marketed was confusing to people," said Guy Cousins, director of Maine's Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services. "The negative aspects were downplayed."

Daniella Cameron, supervisor at the Preble Street Teen Center, a homeless shelter for teens, said usage seems to have peaked this winter.

"It was everywhere. It was rampant," Cameron said. "It was really accessible and inexpensive." Packs would vary in price, but often cost less than $10, officials said.

After some alarming cases, however, including three instances when teens had seizures either in the Preble Street center or nearby over the past year, usage seems to have decreased, she said.

"The youth have had so many negative experiences with it that I think the word has gotten out and it's not being used as much," Cameron said.

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said Spice availability seems to be decreasing, even though the ban doesn't become law until September.

"Most stores, when they were told about the product, stopped selling it immediately, even before the ban went into effect," Sauschuck said.

He said buying Spice was as simple as "buying a pack of gum," and he hopes the statewide ban will help.

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