Editor’s note: This article is first in a series on the use and impact of synthetic marijuana in Elkhart County.
ELKHART — Faith Mission of Elkhart has always tested residents for drug and alcohol use.
Everyone who comes to the shelter undergoes a Breathalyzer test upon arrival and is asked to take a drug test when staff members suspect the person may be under the influence of another substance.
In the summer of 2011, program director Dan Browning noticed a problem with the tests the mission was using.
People who were obviously under the influence of something — anxious, moody and aggressive with a “stoned” look on their faces — were testing negative for all the substances on the mission’s drug tests.
The culprit, he discovered, was synthetic marijuana.
“It was frustrating when we know they’re using something but all the drug tests are negative,” Browning said. “There’s no way they should look that way, so moody and aggressive, their eyes barely open and in a stupor stumbling around.”
In December 2012, Browning ordered 25 new drug tests that detect synthetic marijuana. He was astounded when 21 of those tests came back positive.
From Jan. 1, 2013, to March 31, 2013, the mission issued 59 drug tests; 28 were positive for synthetic marijuana, seven were positive for marijuana, three were positive for non-prescription opiates and one was positive for cocaine.
Many marijuana users have switched to synthetic marijuana because it doesn’t show up on standard drug tests used by employers, Browning said.
“If someone was smoking five joints a day (of marijuana), they’ll pick (synthetic marijuana) up at five joints a day and that’s a lot all at once,” he said.
Synthetic marijuana consists of dried leaves that have been sprayed with chemical compounds meant to imitate the effects of THC, the chemical in marijuana that produces a high.
The synthetic version, however, has much more intense effects and is highly addictive, Browning said.
Juanetta Hill, community liaison for Oaklawn Psychiatric Center, said the drug’s intense high lasts about two minutes.
“It’s an extreme high,” Hill said. “It radiates through (a user’s) whole body. There’s this ecstasy and then it’s gone.”
Hill works with residents at Faith Mission to get treatment for their addictions. Most drug users at the mission are referred to an intensive outpatient program that treats the physical and psychological effects of addiction, Hill said.
“People get so high you can’t even understand them,” Mike Perez, development director for Faith Mission, said.
While marijuana is not known to cause addiction, the synthetic version can be highly addictive.
Browning said one resident who entered an inpatient treatment program for his synthetic marijuana addiction on Tuesday, April 2, described the substance as “more addictive than cocaine.”
The drug has also been found to cause serious health problems.
According to a January 2011 study published in the journal “Pediatrics,” three Texas teens suffered heart attacks after smoking synthetic marijuana.
Several of the chemicals used in synthetic marijuana have been outlawed at the state and federal level, but manufacturers find ways around the law.
“(Synthetic marijuana) makers are slick,” Browning said. “If you look at the packaging, it says, ‘Does not contain chemical compound X.’ When they regulate against a compound, the maker switches to a different compound.”
The packaging also warns that the product is not for human consumption and not intended to be smoked. Instead, it is labeled as an incense or air freshener.
The packets, which often feature colorful cartoon characters and names like “Scooby Snacks,” can be easily purchased at convenience stores in Elkhart County for $10 to $15, Hill said.
“There are no age restrictions,” Hill said. “A child could go in and buy it.”
“A lot of small stores and filling stations carry it because of the demand and the increasing demand,” she said. “It can be a lucrative item to carry. It is actually possible for a convenience store to make several thousand (dollars) a week selling (synthetic marijuana).”
The Indiana House of Representatives on Feb. 15 passed a bill that would outlaw all “look-alike” drugs similar to the synthetic marijuana chemicals that have already been outlawed. The bill is before the Senate.