Synthetic marijuana popular among young adults; Leading cause of overdose in Washington County

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HAGERSTOWN, Md. – With the start of the fall semester drawing closer, the Shepherdstown Police Department is prepared to deal with an increase of drug activity on campus and in town, but officials don’t predict a dramatic increase is likely, compared to other cities.

“We are prepared to deal with an increase, but we don’t think it will be likely,” Sgt. Michael King of the Shepherdstown Police Department said. “We have not seen (spice overdoses) in the town, but we have seen them on the outskirts.”

King reported that his agency is the primary backup to the Shepherd University Police, Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department and West Virginia State Police.

King said that most offenses and citations are alcohol related.

Hagerstown, a city to the northwest of Shepherdstown with a population of approximately 41,000, according to the 2013 census, has a larger, more severe drug problem brewing.

“In my 25 years of law enforcement and narcotics work, I’ve never seen such levels of delusion, violence, and utter uncontrolled rage,” said Chief Mark Holtzman of the Hagerstown Police Department.

Synthetic cannabinoids or “spice” is one drug that has grown dramatically in popularity, especially with teenagers and young adults, according to a report published by the Western Maryland Regional Crime Lab.

“Spice can be especially popular among middle school students to young adults. Synthetic marijuana ranks as the second most frequently used illicit substance, after marijuana among high school seniors,” Holtzman said.

The lab’s report in connection with the Washington County Health Department say synthetic cannabinoids are chemical compounds that act in a manner similar to marijuana and its active ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol or THC.

“Synthetic cannabinoids” is a term used to refer to these types of drugs because of their physiological effects, but chemically they are not similar to grown marijuana, according to the crime lab.

Holtzman said that when “spice” is smoked or ingested, it is highly dangerous, destructive, and addictive. He reports the drug is 800 times more potent than the THC in marijuana.

“Health effects include convulsions, delusions, elevated heart rates and blood pressure, elevated body temperature, vomiting, hallucinations, seizures, acute anxiety, paranoia, pulmonary (respiratory) arrest, paralysis, and coma,” Holtzman said.

In many incidents of overdose an ambulance and the police department are dispatched simultaneously.

“Just when you think that you have seen it all, a patient will present with something different,” a paramedic/firefighter with a local agency said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Patients will be combative and have to be restrained physically or with medication.”

This emergency medical provider also reported that in some instances synthetic marijuana is used in conjunction with other drugs including heroin, decreasing the patient’s respirations and in certain situations causing the patient to stop breathing.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports poison centers in 48 states reported receiving 3,572 calls from January to May 2015 related to synthetic cannabinoid use, a 229 percent increase from 1,085 calls received during the same time period in 2014.

Holtzman reports that “spice” is the leading cause of drug overdoses in Washington County.

Nationally, the CDC reports 15 reported deaths in the first half of 2015, triple the amount of deaths compared to five in 2014.

Synthetic marijuana has several different names including “spice, K2, black mamba, and crazy clown,” according to a press release by the CDC.

According to Holtzman, the drug is sold at affordable prices, usually between $10 to $20 per-gram-package.

“Unscrupulous purveyors target young customers, packaging the drug in small bags, usually sporting cartoon characters,” Holtzman said.

“Most spice containers are clearly labeled, not intended for human consumption…no controls exist in manufacture quality, potency, and overall safety, thus no oversight by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or FDA,” Holtzman said.

“If you find it, please dispose of it immediately. You can take it to our HPD lobby prescription drug drop box- no questions asked,” Holtzman said.

Todd Bowman is a staff writer for The Picket. He can be reached at tbowma04@rams.shepherd.edu or followed on Twitter @todd_bowman87.