Coroner: ‘Synthetic marijuana’ is no longer similar to marijuana

Synthetic marijuana — different chemical blends first created in the 2000s to mimic the effects of marijuana — is nothing like its namesake anymore.

“This is a poison,” Dr. Beau Clark, East Baton Rouge Parish’s coroner, said of the chemical combinations known as synthetic marijuana but referred to by scientists and doctors in chemical terms as types of synthetic cannabinoids. “It’s not really anything like marijuana.”

While original versions had effects on users similar to marijuana, these newer forms of synthetic cannabinoids have wildly different, often much more dangerous effects on users.

As chemists have altered the drug combinations in an attempt to stay one step ahead of law enforcement, what most people refer to as synthetic marijuana has been manipulated to the point that it no longer resembles America’s most commonly used illegal drug.

“The effects have been unpredictable,” Clark said. And that’s where the danger lies.

The chemicals typically are sprayed onto grass clippings, paper or some type of other flammable product and then packaged as forms of incense or potpourri often advertised as “not for consumption.” It’s ingestion of some of those chemicals that leads to symptoms in users such as acute psychosis, paranoia and kidney failure recently seen by doctors.

Synthetic marijuana was first submitted to the State Police Crime Lab in Baton Rouge in January 2010, the lab’s toxicology and drug manager said. Since then, the drug’s popularity has exploded.

In 2012 and 2013, different chemical combinations commonly referred to as synthetic marijuana became the third most-submitted drug to the crime lab behind marijuana and cocaine, said Rebecca Nugent, the manager.

This year, it appears the drug will outpace cocaine to become the second most-submitted drug to the lab. In fact, submissions have nearly doubled midway through 2014 compared with last year, Nugent said.

As law enforcement and legislators have joined forces to ban different chemical combinations of the drug, chemists in other countries have created just as many new versions that regularly end up packaged on shelves as herbal incense or other cleverly marketed products.

Legislators can’t ban all chemicals that could be considered synthetic marijuana because lawmakers first must make sure they aren’t banning those used in everyday products or medicines before adding them to the banned list of Schedule I drugs, said the crime lab’s director, Capt. Jim McGuane.

No one has died in the parish purely from consuming synthetic marijuana, said Clark, the coroner.

But Nugent, the crime lab toxicology manager, said lab technicians have found evidence of synthetic cannabinoid use by some drivers in fatal crashes. An increasing number of people are driving after taking the drug, she said.

While no one in the parish has died directly from using the drug, Baton Rouge police said in June that a dog was beaten to death by a man who told them he recently ingested a form of the synthetic chemicals.

“The people that are making these compounds … all they care about is making money,” said McGuane, the Crime Lab director. “They have no idea what it’ll do to the person (using it).”

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