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Synthetic marijuana effects can vary and are still largely unknown

Medical experts talk about the severity of the effects of synthetic marijuana.

Posted on June 18, 2014 at 6:53 a.m.

ELKHART — Synthetic marijuana is known to cause seizures, paranoia attacks and even violent acts. While there are many medical and psychological effects that can be attributed to synthetic drugs, there are still many unknowns about this complex substance.

Police raided and closed down 12 convenience stores in Elkhart and St. Joseph counties that were suspected of selling synthetic drugs last week, and in a press conference Elkhart County Prosecutor Curtis Hill said the drugs are dangerous, addictive and illegal.

Synthetic drugs, also known as synthetic marijuana and sold under numerous names, including "fake weed," "spice" or "K2," are mixtures of dried herbs that have been sprayed with synthetic compounds that are chemically similar to THC, the psychoactive ingredients produced by a marijuana plant, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

In recent years states, including Indiana, have placed bans on the chemicals found in synthetic drugs. However, manufacturers of the drugs started substituting different chemical compounds to evade the legal restrictions, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, (NIDA).

Where the drugs come from is often unknown because they can be purchased online. Several of the websites that sell are based in China, and some of the drugs contain an herb native to Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean, according to the DEA.

Synthetic drugs are often sold in small, 3-gram silvery bags, and users smoke the drugs in joints or pipes or brew them like tea.

EFFECTS

Synthetic drug users have reported effects that are similar to those produced by marijuana, like elevated mood and relaxation. In other cases the effects can be stronger. Users have reported psychotic effects, like extreme anxiety, paranoia and hallucinations, according to the NIDA.

The physiological effects of synthetic marijuana are varied and can include rapid heart rate, vomiting, increased blood pressure and seizures.

Lt. Peter Svetanoff, an emergency medical technician at the Elkhart Fire Department, said there is no clear-cut way of telling all the side effects of using synthetic drugs because every person presents a different case.

"As an EMT, you just have to piece it all together," he said. "You look for signs and symptoms, things that don't add up to what they're saying is wrong with them."

There are no known cases of anyone dying of a synthetic drug overdose in Elkhart County, Elkhart County coroner John White said. However, he said there is an ongoing criminal investigation in which synthetic drugs may have been involved.

ADDICTION

The initial effects from being under the influence don't last long, but some side effects can last longer, as can withdrawal periods, said Michelle Haas, team leader of addiction services at Oaklawn.

Haas said she has seen the drug affecting sleeping patterns and a person's ability to eat. What's more, the drug is known to cause violent and unpredictable behavior.

"There have been a few cases where we've gotten 72-hour detention holds on synthetic drug users, and a lot of the times it's because of the danger they pose to themselves and to others," Haas said.

"It is characteristic of violent behaviors to increase when they are under the influence of synthetic marijuana, so it enhances the risk of danger. And the psychotic episodes we are seeing are pretty severe."

Oaklawn, an institute that serves Elkhart and St. Joseph counties, provides mental health and addictions treatment for children and adults.

Haas said Oaklawn has been seeing cases of synthetic drug abuse since about 2010, but the number of cases began to rise at an alarming rate in the last year.

The staff at Oaklawn has seen people as young as 11 years old brought in for treatment, but the larger portion of the current population at Oaklawn are teens and young adults, Haas said.

Of the current population receiving treatment in Oaklawn, now at about 100 clients, 20 percent has admitted to having used synthetic marijuana. 

Sean McCrindle, vice president of program operations at Bashor Children's Home, said the majority of children and teens admitted for drug addictions treatment have used synthetic drugs at least once.

Many children tell the staff at Bashor that they started using synthetic marijuana because they’ve heard drug screens don’t detect the drug, McCrindle said. 

“And a lot of the times what we see are kids who already have significant substance abuse issues and they've turned to synthetic drugs as a way to try to avoid getting in trouble while continuing to get a high,” he said.

In reality, places like Oaklawn are becoming better at detecting synthetic drugs during their screenings, Haas said. The change in the chemical compounds of the substances has become a major challenge for those running drug screens.

"I've still seen a few slipping through the cracks, but we've made strides," Haas said.

TREATMENT

Haas said it's important to remember that recovery is possible.

But it's never easy.

Both Bashor Children's Home and Oaklawn provide initial assessments for people who need addictions treatment. Depending on the results from the assessments, people can be sent to individual therapy, family therapy, group sessions and psychiatric services, or residential treatment.

Haas said there are many resources for those who don't think they have the financial means to cover addictions treatment, and Oaklawn will talk with clients about their options.

"We never turn anyone away," she said.

Treatment can last however long is necessary for the client to recover. Oaklawn's intensive outpatient treatment usually takes about six months and includes three-hour sessions three times a week.

During that time clients are encouraged to go to 12-step programs, like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous or Celebrate Recovery. Haas said it’s important for those who are going through the recovery process finds support in the community.

"It’s designed to be a support group of the recovering addicts that shows their experience, strength and hope with other people that are suffering from addiction,” she said. 

Haas said the staff at Oaklawn will encourage clients to join a community support group because while a treatment provider is only in their life temporarily, the people in a 12-step program can be in their life permanently.

Residential treatment is recommended to those who have a more serious addiction and have gone through an outpatient program without any success.

Bashor Children’s Home offers its own residential program. But with a total of 21 beds specific for the drug addiction treatment program, Bashor now has a waiting list for those interested in entering the program, McCrindle said. 

"It's not a huge amount of beds, but there have been times in the past when we haven't had waiting lists and now we are consistently full," he said.

Although Oaklawn does not offer a residential program of its own, it often recommends clients to facilities nearby, like Recovery Matters in East Chicago, Ridgeview in Ohio, and the YWCA in South Bend. 

"The chance for relapse is always possible for anyone," Haas said. "A lot of it is self report, so it's hard to get an exact percentage, but if I had to guess I'd say probably 20 percent of people fall into a relapse."

"With that being said, often times they'll come back to treatment for a refresher to help them get back to where they need to be."


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