The days of synthetic marijuana have arrived. But with eight states already banning the substance, and a number of others including Ohio in the process of making it illegal, those days may be numbered.Marketed under product names such as “Spice,” “K2,” “Paradise,” “Genie,” “Yucatan Fire,” “Sence,” “Smoke,” “Skunk” and “Zohai,” synthetic marijuana can be found in head shops, some gas stations and, of course, online. As a matters of policy, it generally is not sold to people under the age of 18.
The synthetic version retails for $20 a gram, $60 for three grams, and $120 for 10 grams. This compares to $20-$30 for an eighth of an ounce (3.5 grams) of low-grade “middies” marijuana, or $50-$60 for an eighth of high-grade “chronic” or “kill” marijuana.“It tastes good,” reported one regular marijuana smoker from Athens trying Paradise for the first time. “It definitely gave me a head change.”
Two other Athens residents sampled the substance on Monday. “Ann” and “Zack,” neither of whom wanted to use his or her real name in this article, said they both have been smoking marijuana for over a decade. Ann hadn’t smoked marijuana in two weeks prior to trying the synthetic version. Zack had smoked marijuana that morning, several hours earlier. Both Zack and Ann reported smoking marijuana on a daily basis, multiple times per day.“It tastes a lot like leaves, like pot leaves,” Ann said. “I’m feeling high from it. It’s a heady high. I don’t feel high in my body… I don’t feel as affected physically, as far as motor control and reaction time and things like that.”
Zack agreed, saying he didn’t feel relaxed from it like from marijuana, but that he did get high from it as well. They agreed that Paradise was a harsher smoke than marijuana, and noted the obvious taste difference. Synthetic marijuana comes in a variety of flavors, none of which replicate the marijuana taste, including vanilla, cherry, banana and others.When Ann speculated about smoking synthetic marijuana on a regular basis, Zack pointed to all the unknowns as far as what the substance actually contains, and potential health risks stemming from that issue. This concern has been raised by public-health and law-enforcement officials, too.
“They just need to legalize weed,” Zack said.
ATHENS COUNTY SHERIFF Pat Kelly said that the substance isn’t illegal at this point, so he doesn’t have much of an opinion on it.“We have not had any encounters with it here to my knowledge,” he said. “I’m not in favor of legalizing marijuana or any other drug. But our job is to enforce the law, not to make it. I’ll just wait and see what the legislators do.”
Ohio state Reps. Margaret Ann Ruhl, R-Mount Vernon, and Dave Burke, R-Marysville, introduced House Bill 544 on June 10, which would criminalize the sale or possession of four identified synthetic marijuana compounds by adding them to the state’s list of controlled substances. The offence would be the same as for regular marijuana, Ruhl said Wednesday.She said that this action came about after the Knox County assistant prosecutor received a call from Mount Vernon High School reporting that three students had passed out in class after smoking the substance.
Asked whether she thought manufacturers would simply come up with a new compound to mimic marijuana after the legislation passes, Ruhl said she has no doubt this will happen.
“One of my concerns is that nobody knows what the effect of this actual chemical is,” she said.Burke, who is a pharmacist as well as being a state representative, said that the substance acts in the brain similar to marijuana, but doesn’t contain THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the active ingredient in marijuana. This prevents drug screens from picking up the synthetic version, he said, because the drug tests look for THC.
“It still acts on the same receptors (in the brain), the cannabinoid receptors,” he said. “Rep. Ruhl and I are being proactive on this, trying to stop this before it becomes a problem in Ohio.”He said the product has no medical value, and has not been evaluated by the federal Food and Drug Administration.
The American Association of Poison Control Centers reported last Friday that the substance has spurred 761 calls to U.S. poison centers so far this year in 46 states and Washington, D.C.Dr. Marcel Casavant of the Central Ohio Poison Center at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus said Wednesday that while the parent compound acts at the marijuana receptor the same as marijuana would, he doesn’t know if it is also acting on other receptors in the brain.
“From the patients who have come to the attention of poison centers, we're pretty sure we're seeing something worse than marijuana,” he said. “Some of our patients have been agitated, wild and combative, as if they're on some sort of stimulant. We don't typically see that with marijuana intoxication.”He said he thinks the risk is higher from the synthetic product than the real thing.
“Technically, there's a risk of death from marijuana, but realistically, that risk comes from having distorted judgment and doing something stupid,” Casavant said. “Even with just a few cases of synthetic pot, however, we've already seen some very sick victims.”Casavant said that the Columbus poison center, which serves almost half of the state’s counties, including southeast Ohio, has seen six cases so far according to an imperfect search several weeks ago. This does not include numbers from the Cleveland or Cincinnati areas.
“I'd be in favor of making this product illegal,” he said. “It shouldn't be legal to make, sell, possess and use a product designed to substitute for an illegal drug.”Earl Cecil is executive director of the 317 Board, which serves Athens, Hocking and Vinton counties for alcohol, drug addiction and mental health services.
“We know it’s being sold here in Athens,” he said Tuesday. “We know some states have made it illegal. We hope that Ohio does the same. We are working it into some of our prevention activities.”Jim Schulz, emergency department unit manager at O’Bleness Memorial Hospital in Athens, said that no identified cases have come through the hospital so far.
“At this point, the issue of legal vs. illegal is the only concern,” he said. “Our problems with illegal marijuana are very little. We don’t see overdoses from it. We don’t have problems or issues with people acting out… THC is never an issue in this place. We wish that people, if they were to have a drug of choice, to get altered on that. I’ve never had my nose broken by somebody who’s smoked marijuana.”Schulz said that individuals intoxicated on alcohol are much more of a problem.
State Rep. Debbie Phillips, D-Athens, and state Sen. Jimmy Stewart, R-Albany, each said that with the legislation new and not yet assigned to a committee, they haven’t had a chance to delve too deeply into the matter.Ruhl and Burke say they’d like to have the legislation prohibiting synthetic marijuana in place by the end of the year.